A lifetime of breaking barriers

Originally Published: February 4, 2004
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

Jackie Robinson earned a place in the history books by becoming the first black player to break into Major League Baseball.

Sadly, like so many other stories of difference-makers in the years preceding the Civil Rights era, Robinson met with many obstacles in his life, hurdles often placed before him merely because of the color of his skin.

The following is a brief look at some of the challenges and accomplishments that Robinson faced:

Jackie Robinson was the first to letter in four sports at UCLA.
The formative years
  • While growing up in the almost all-white public schools in Pasadena, a guidance counselor listed Robinson's probable future employment as "gardener."

  • Robinson wasn't a likable person as a youth, a childhood friend said, "because his whole thing was just win, win, win, and beat everybody."

  • In March 1938, the Chicago White Sox played a benefit exhibition with the Pasadena Sox, a group of young players from the city. After the 19-year-old Robinson made a couple of brilliant plays, White Sox manager Jimmy Dykes said, "Geez, if that kid was white, I'd sign him right now."

  • Robinson was a standout four-sport star at UCLA. Perhaps his best sport was football. On Aug. 28, 1941, Robinson caught a 36-yard touchdown pass for the College All-Stars in a 37-13 loss to the NFL champion Chicago Bears. "The only time we worried," said Bears end Dick Plasman, "was when that guy Robinson was on the field."

    The baseball years

  • After Branch Rickey had signed Robinson to a professional contract, Clay Hopper, manager of the Dodgers' Triple-A Montreal Royals who was raised in Mississippi, reportedly begged Rickey not to place Robinson on his team.

    Jackie Robinson
    Just days before his death, Jackie Robinson lamented that baseball had yet to hire its first black manager.
  • On April 18, 1946 in Jersey City, Robinson became the first African-American to play in organized ball in the 20th century. In his debut with Montreal of the International League, he went 4-for-5, with a three-run homer. He scored four runs (two after his feints on third caused balks), knocked in four and stole two bases in the 14-1 victory over the Giants.

  • Robinson's nicknames in Montreal were "the Dark Destroyer" and "the Colored Comet."

  • During Robinson's first season with Brooklyn, Jimmy Cannon wrote, "In the clubhouse Robinson is a stranger. . . . He is the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports."

  • The Phillies' Alabama-bred manager Ben Chapman was the most vocal of Robinson's tormentors that year. He came under criticism for the vulgar, biting slurs with which he and his team attacked Robinson.

  • NL president Ford Frick headed off a players' strike, instigated by the St. Louis Cardinals, that sought to force Robinson from baseball in 1947.

  • Robinson's anger contrasted with the calm of catcher Roy Campanella, who joined the Dodgers in 1948. Campanella thought the mercurial Robinson was a bit of a troublemaker; Robinson thought the catcher was subservient.

  • Robinson believed that when Branch Rickey broke down the color barrier in baseball, he "did more for the Negroes than any white man since Abraham Lincoln."

    The political years

  • In 1960, Robinson was criticized for supporting Richard Nixon, a Republican, for president over the Democratic candidate John Kennedy. After Nixon's defeat, the candidate sent Robinson an engraved plaque in appreciation. Robinson, a vice president at Chock Full o' Nuts, sent Nixon 24 pounds of his firm's coffee. Robinson's relationship with Nixon later soured and Jackie campaigned for Hubert Humphrey against Nixon in 1968.

    Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King
    Jackie Robinson's actions sparked Martin Luther King's civil rights movement.
  • In 1964, he endorsed Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican presidential candidacy; Barry Goldwater got the nod.

  • In the 1960s, Robinson had a running controversy with Malcolm X, who thought Robinson wasn't militant enough.

  • Late in his life, Robinson said, "When I quit [baseball], I went into the NAACP, and the conservatives found me hard to take. They were men of 80. Their attitude was don't rock the boat. Today militants find me hard to take. Their attitude is burn everything. But I haven't changed much. The times have changed around me."

  • Before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, Robinson was honored by baseball, and in a brief speech, he chided the sport for not having a black manager. Nine days later, Robinson died.

    Post-humously

  • To mark the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced in 1997 that the league had retired Robinson's No. 42.

  • In 2003, the House of Representatives approved by voice vote legislation to award Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal. Since George Washington received the first Congressional Gold Medal in 1776, Congress has bestowed the honor on some 300 people, including Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II and Rosa Parks.

  • SPONSORED HEADLINES

    ALSO SEE

    ESPN TOP HEADLINES

    MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM