The Most Influential
People in History
Jackie Roosevelt Robinson
1919 – 1972
American Baseball Player; 5’ 11’, 204 pounds
Sports Ranking 10th of 12
1982 U.S. stamp.
By becoming the first black player in the formerly white only modern baseball major leagues, Jackie Robinson became one of the great pioneers of civil rights in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr. said himself, "without him I would never have been able to do what I did." He was a Sit-Inner before Sit-Ins. A Freedom Rider before Freedom Rides.(1) Also, Robinson’s courageous act opened the door to other blacks in baseball and other sports. Although harassed and threatened by fans and opposing players in his debut season of 1947, Robinson, an infielder, batted .297, won Rookie of the Year honors, and became a symbol of personal courage. Known for his daring on the base paths—he stole home 19 times—Robinson led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant in 6 of his 10 years. He was named M.V.P. in 1949, leading the league in batting (.342) and stolen bases (37), while knocking in 124 runs.
In 1997, Major League Baseball (MLB) universally retired Robinson's uniform number, No. 42, across all major league teams. He was the first pro athlete in any sport to be so honored. Initiated for the first time on April 15, 2004, Jackie Robinson Day is celebrated each year on that day; all players, coaches, and managers on both teams and the umpires, wear #42 on their jerseys.
In 2018, 8.4% of players on opening-day major league rosters were African-American, the lowest percentage since the early days of integration and down sharply from the all-time high in 1975, when blacks made up 27% of rosters. Latino players now (2018) account for 29.5%, reflecting baseball’s—and the country’s—shifting demographics. Whites in 2018 accounted for 59% of opening-day major league rosters.(2)
In striking contrast to Robinson's fame and influence in integrating baseball, integration in the National Football League (NFL) followed a very different path. The NFL became integrated in 1920. It remained that way until 1934 when, in an effort to expand their fortunes, the NFL's owners agreed to a secret pact to follow baseball's model, expelling the few black players they had and refusing to sign new ones. This clandestine policy of segregation was rigidly enforced for the next 12 years -- until March of 1946, when the L.A. Rams signed African American tailback Kenny Washington to the team's roster, breaking with other owners and ending football's apartheid.
Washington faced the same kinds of racial hostility from the people attending games and opposing players as Robinson would face the following year. Also, like Robinson, Washington excelled on the field, leading the NFL in yards-per-carry during his first season. Knowing Washington's road would not be easy, the Rams signed another black player, Washington's old UCLA teammate Woody Strode. Yet, despite their contributions to the game and the suffering they endured, Washington and Strode have practically disappeared into the history books. Neither man is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and neither has had his number retired by the Rams.
Even Southern California has largely forgotten their legacy. When the Rose Bowl installed its first commemorative statue in 2017, it sculpted Washington's UCLA teammate, Jackie Robinson, wearing a football uniform. The final twist to this story - the NFL is now (2016) 69.7% African-American with whites comprising 27.4%, and Latinos and Asians a tiny .8% and 1.9% respectively.(3)
(1) "100 Years of Time - Breaking barriers: Sept. 22, 1947," by Spike Lee, Time Magazine, March 13-20, 2023, p. 34.
(2) Richard E. Lapchick, Director, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), "The 2019 Major League Baseball Racial & Gender Report Card, p. 29" The Racial & Gender Report Card, tidesport.org, Web, 13 May 2019 (all statistics for this paragraph).
(3) Richard E. Lapchick, Director, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), "The 2018 National Football League Racial & Gender Report Card, p.23" The Racial & Gender Report Card, tidesport.org, Web, 13 May 2019.
Autobiography with Jules Tygiel, I Never Had It Made, 1972; Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy by Jules Tygiel, 1983; Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, 1997. Film – 42, 2013, 128 minutes.