Ken Burns Classroom

Jackie Robinson

1919–1972

Still image of baseball legend Jackie Robinson
Still image of baseball legend Jackie Robinson

The son of a sharecropper and grandson of a slave, Jackie Robinson made history when he stepped onto the field on April 15, 1947, the first black player in a white-only league. Brought to the Brooklyn Dodgers by forward-thinking owner Branch Rickey, Robinson would battle stereotypes and break down barriers for minorities in all walks of life, and would leave the sport of baseball—and America—forever changed.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. The youngest of five children, he was raised by a single mom and distinguished himself in high school as a talented athlete. At UCLA he became the first student ever to letter in four sports: track, football, basketball, and baseball. In 1942, unable to continue college for financial reasons, Robinson enrolled in the US Army. Two years and a court-martial later (for his objections to racial discrimination), Jackie began playing in the Negro Baseball League. In 1947, he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first black player in the Major Leagues since 1889, the beginning of segregated baseball. It was a bold move, both for Robinson and Rickey, that challenged not only the color barrier in baseball, but the custom of racial segregation in all walks of life.

Robinson’s will was tested time and again. He suffered racial abuse, particularly at away games, was jeered at by crowds, and received threats aimed at himself and his family. Robinson persevered, with support from Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, and others. At the end of his first year in Brooklyn, Robinson was named National League Rookie of the Year, racking up 12 home runs, a .297 average, and a whopping 29 steals. He picked up the league’s Most Valuable player award in 1949 with a .342 average and helped his team win the World Series in 1955. Robinson retired in 1957, with a career batting average of .311 and a record-setting 19 steals of home plate.

During his decade as a player and beyond, Robinson served as a voice for civil rights and a champion for black athletes. He helped establish the African American-owned Freedom Bank and served on the board of NAACP. In 1962, he became the first African American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Robinson passed away in October on October 24, 1972. In his honor, his wife established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, dedicated to providing scholarships and mentoring programs for young people in need.

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