Most people know that Jackie Robinson became the first African American to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947, and that as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, he survived racist attacks from fans, players and even his own teammates to become one of the legends of the game. But beyond Robinson’s exploits on the baseball diamond, what do you really know about the six-time all-star and Hall of Famer? Here are 10 surprising and little-known facts.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga., to Jerry and Mallie Robinson. The family wanted to honor Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Jackie was born, because of his stance on racism and calls to end lynchings. He also earned the favor of many blacks when he invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, the first time an African American would do so.
It’s widely known that Brooklyn Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey required that Robinson not respond in any way to racial taunts on or off the field. This wouldn’t be easy. Very early in his career, Robinson showed an unwillingness to back down to anything that threatened his dignity.
On Jan. 22, 1938, Robinson, already a basketball and football star at Pasadena Junior College, was returning home from a movie with a friend, when his pal starting singing a popular tune called “Flat Foot Floogie.” A police officer who happened to be nearby was insulted by the song and confronted Robinson and his friend. Robinson verbally challenged the officer and ended up spending the night in custody. At a hearing on Jan. 25, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, but because he was a star athlete, the judge suspended the sentence on the condition that Robinson not be arrested for two years.
Robinson was clearly an athletic wonder who excelled at several sports — he even won a junior boys singles tennis championship in 1936. At UCLA, his athletic exploits would become legendary, helping him earn varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and track.
While at Army basic training at Fort Riley, Kan., in 1942, Robinson quickly stood out from other would-be soldiers, earning an “expert” rating as a marksman and a character rating of “excellent.” With his college education, he seemed a perfect officer candidate. But when he applied, he was rejected without explanation. Instead, he was ordered to work in the horses’ stables as less qualified white soldiers were accepted into the program.
At that time, he’d become friendly with heavyweight champ Joe Louis, who had also done his basic training at Fort Riley. When the champ heard about Robinson and other black soldiers being denied access to OCS, he called a friend who was an assistant to the black civilian aide to the secretary of war (now defense). Shortly after Louis’ intervention, Robinson and several other blacks were accepted into OCS, which was integrated for the first time in history.
In 1945, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs after a five-year absence from the game, having last played for UCLA in 1940. He didn’t enjoy it. He hated the rough bus rides, the cheap hotels and the constant night games. A religious and moral man, Robinson hated the drinking and carousing of his teammates. More importantly, Robinson believed strongly in integration, “not in the glory of separation,” according to biographer Arnold Rampersad. Robinson believed blacks were as talented as whites and wanted to play against the best of the best.
Still, he managed to become an all-star and catch the eye of Dodger scouts. Though he wasn’t considered the best player in the Negro Leagues, his youth and skill made him a prime pick for the Dodgers, who signed him to play in the minors beginning with the 1946 season. But some Negro League players would later resent Robinson after he publicly expressed his disdain for the Negro Leagues after he joined the majors. They thought he was ungrateful to the league that gave him a chance to shine and the long-time veterans who helped him improve his game.
Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick was one of the few politicians pushing to end segregation in baseball. Using the threat of banning professional baseball on Sundays, he was able to pressure the Red Sox into letting black players try out for the team. Wendell Smith, a sportswriter for the black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, was put in charge of finding the players. On April 16, 1945, Robinson joined Negro League players Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams on the field of Fenway Park. Even though the workout was a sham — Red Sox executives had no intentions of hiring a black baseball player — Robinson’s standout efforts left an impression on Smith, and he would later mention Robinson to Branch Rickey, who was on the lookout for black players to bring into the major leagues.
In 1949, during a Paris peace conference, the revered singer-activist Robeson gave a speech in which he proclaimed that blacks would not fight for the United States against the Soviet Union. This launched an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was conducting its infamous “witch hunt” to identify U.S. citizens with communist ties. The committee called on Robinson to refute Robeson’s assertion. Robinson didn’t want to speak out against the beloved singer, who had actively worked to end Jim Crow in baseball. But Robinson also knew of the consequences if he didn’t testify.
On July 18, 1949, Robinson came before the committee to speak out against communism and refute Robeson’s claim, saying of the singer’s statement, “If Mr. Robeson actually made it, sounds very silly to me.” He also took a moment to speak out against Jim Crow, which the committee was expecting. After his testimony, Robinson was proclaimed a hero in the white press, while the black media was split.
In his autobiography, Robinson regretted having testified and spoke of his respect for Robeson. But in an interview for ESPN, Paul Robeson Jr., son of the singer, said that he and his father both believed that Robinson had been unfairly labeled an Uncle Tom and that the former baseball star deserved credit for protesting against racism at the hearing.
Before Rupert Murdoch got his hands on the tabloid and turned it into a conservative rag, the Post was know for its liberal views when Robinson was hired in April 1959. Though his thrice-weekly column ran in the sports section, Robinson — who used a ghostwriter — could write about anything he wanted, and he often did, particularly on issues affecting African Americans.
In his post-baseball career, Robinson championed civil rights causes and looked to support politicians who supported the issue. During the 1960 presidential campaign, Robinson, a registered Independent, initially campaigned for Minnesota Sen. Hubert Humphrey to be the Democratic nominee over John F. Kennedy, who Robinson felt was a little too cozy with the Southern Democrats who had tried to quash civil rights legislature in Congress. When Humphrey failed to get the nomination, Robinson got behind then-Vice President Richard Nixon, who impressed Robinson when he gave a speech in Ethiopia expressing his support for integration in America.
But several missteps by Nixon’s campaign — including not calling a pregnant Coretta Scott King to show support after Martin Luther King Jr. was sentenced to hard labor for his involvement in a sit-in demonstration (JFK did make a call) — made Robinson regret his decision to join the campaign.
As common as it is today for athletes to become commentators after their sports careers are over, it was still a relatively new thing in 1965 when pioneering TV executive Roone Arledge signed Robinson to join ABC’s Game of the Week to cover 27 baseball games.
(Primary source: Jackie Robinson: A Biography, by Arnold Rampersad)