After months of scouting, the National League chose athlete Jackie Robinson to be the face of integration in baseball. Other candidates had been heavily considered before him, including Satchel Paige, Silvio Garcia, and Josh Gibson. But, while he wasn’t necessarily the best baseball player, a special combination of characteristics made Robinson the perfect candidate to pioneer integration: He was a star athlete in college; he was comfortable playing on an integrated team (as he had in the minor leagues); he had expressed interest in civil rights; and had helped open an officer candidate school for African-American soldiers—with help from boxer Joe Louis, who had also been drafted.
So, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson donned the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, and Major League Baseball went from a segregated sport to being the institution that largely paved the way for integration in American society—years before the peak of the civil rights movement, a year before the armed forces integrated, and almost a decade before public schools ended segregation.
Today marks Robinson’s 93rd birthday. Though he died in 1972, his legacy as an early civil rights leader and a courageous figure remains. Read on to discover more about the life Jackie Robinson, and the other famous figures that made Major League Baseball integration possible.
Jackie Robinson is the most famous figure in baseball integration history. Born in 1919 to sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, Robinson came from an athletic family. His older brother, Mack Robinson, won the silver medal in the men’s 200-meter race in the 1936 Summer Olympics. Jackie excelled at sports from an early age, and went on to become the first athlete to earn varsity letters in four sports at U.C.L.A. He played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, until he was approached to join the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey contacted Robinson, he told him he wanted to start an African-American team called the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, so Robinson agreed to meet. Rickey revealed his real plan to Robinson, and told him he was Rickey’s choice to integrate a white, Major League team. Rickey’s only worry was that Robinson had a temper, so to test him he acted out the scenes that Robinson might find himself in when facing prejudiced fans and teammates.
“Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson asked Rickey. “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” replied Rickey.
Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers in 1947. Faced with racial taunts and threats, Robinson never fought back—except by playing harder. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, and helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955.
Branch Rickey was born in Ohio in 1881, and was a devout Christian throughout his life. A savvy businessman, Rickey set his sights on Jackie Robinson and professional baseball’s integration partly because he was uncomfortable with segregation, but also because he believed an integrated team could attract a big crowd.
He earned fame as the man who signed Jackie Robinson, but he introduced many other innovations to baseball as well. The farm system, where MLB teams have exclusive rights to sign players from specific minor league teams, was established by Branch Rickey while he was general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Rickey also pioneered the use of statistical analysis in baseball, today a huge part of the sport. In addition, he introduced the use of batting cages, pitching machines and batting helmets—big innovations for the time.
Larry Doby was born in 1923, and was a star local athlete in New Jersey before joining the Negro National League. He was signed to the Cleveland Indians in 1947, making him the second African-American to play in the majors, and the first African-American to play for the American League. The next year, Doby helped take the Indians to victory in the World Series. He later played for the Chicago White Sox, and the Detroit Tigers. In 1978, Doby marked another milestone when he became the manager for the White Sox, making him the second African-American in history to manage a major league team.
Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige is remembered as one of the hardest throwers in baseball. Born in 1906, he first played with the Negro Leagues, taking his team to the World Series. In July 1948, Paige was signed to the Cleveland Indians, becoming the first African-American pitcher in the American League. At 42, he was also the oldest rookie to play in the Major Leagues. In 1971, Paige became the first Negro League player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He’s also remembered for his “Rules for Staying Young,” which included “Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society—the social ramble ain’t restful.”
Born in 1931, Willie Mays excelled in batting and fielding, and is considered one of the best all-around baseball players in history. Both his father and grandfather were baseball players. Mays came of age after the color barrier was broken, but there were still only a handful of African-American players in the major leagues. Mays joined the New York (later the San Francisco) Giants in 1951, and helped take the team to the World Series in 1954. In 1966, Mays signed a contract with the Giants that made him the highest-paid player in baseball.