April 15 was an important sports anniversary. On April 15, 1947, baseball player Jackie Robinson played his first major league game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Most kids know Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. But I have been reading about Robinson, and he was a lot more than that.
First, his name was Jack Roosevelt Robinson. He was born in 1919, and his mother gave him his middle name because she admired President Teddy Roosevelt. Sportswriters began to call him “Jackie” when he was a star athlete at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).
That’s another thing. Robinson did not just play baseball. He was a four-sport (!) athlete at UCLA. Baseball may have been his worst sport in college.
In 1940, Robinson led the UCLA football team in passing yardage, running yardage and scoring. In basketball, he averaged 12.4 points a game in 1940 and 11.1 points a game in 1941.
Wait, we’re not done. Robinson was a track star. He won the NCAA championship in the long jump. Robinson probably would have competed in the 1940 and 1944 Summer Olympics if the Games had not been canceled because of World War II.
Later, Robinson showed he could play some baseball. That was important for a couple of reasons. First, baseball was the most popular professional sport by far in the 1940s. Second, many white people had claimed for years that African American players were not good enough to compete in the all-white major leagues.
Robinson proved those claims were wrong. Despite death threats and abuse from some fans and opposing players, Robinson didn’t give up. He was the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year in 1947, batting .297 and leading the NL in stolen bases.
Robinson was a star. He made six all-star teams during his 10 seasons and was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) in the National League in 1949. He had a career batting average of .311 and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
And Robinson’s teams won. Some people had claimed that having African Americans on a team would be bad for team spirit. He proved them wrong again. Robinson’s Dodgers won six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series.
After his baseball career, Robinson was a success in business and remained an outspoken advocate for equal rights for African Americans. At times, he sounded like the athletes who protest today.
At the beginning of his 1972 autobiography Robinson wrote: “As I write this … I cannot stand and sing the [national] anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
Jackie Robinson was much more than the first African American to play major league baseball. He was an American hero.