Ethics Hero Emeritus: Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

Yesterday, the media, history buffs and Kate Winslet fans were obsessed with remembering the Titanic, sometimes even with proper reverence to the 1500 men, women and children who lost their lives in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. A strong argument could be made, however, that the most significant event that occurred on April 15 took place in 1947, in Brooklyn, New York. For that was the day that Jackie Robinson ran out to his position at first base as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and became the first African- American to play baseball in the Major Leagues since the earliest years of the game.

With that act, and his epic heroism for the rest of the season, Robinson changed baseball, sports, American society and history. It was a cultural watershed in a nation that had been virtually apartheid since the end of the Civil War, a catalytic moment that served notice that racism was no longer the future of America. Robinson’s dramatic debut in 1947 was more than a year before President Harry Truman desegregated the military, and seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that “separate is inherently unequal” in declaring public school segregation unconstitutional. Further down a difficult road that has not ended yet were the crusade of Rev. Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Act, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, but it was Jackie Robinson who led the way.

And no one should ever think that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It wasn’t merely the opportunity. It was him.

Dodgers president Branch Rickey, a visionary and remarkable man himself, had long been determined to break baseball’s color barrier, which he believed was immoral. He selected Robinson to become the first African-American to play in the majors since the 19th Century in part because he was one of the best players in the Negro Leagues, but also because Robinson was educated (UCLA), articulate, and fearless. Rickey knew that any black man who stepped on to the baseball fields of an all-white league would be subjected to terrible abuse and racial hatred from players and fans, and  Rickey wanted a special man who could endure it, maintain his self control, and still excel.

In  August of 1945, Rickey met with Robinson and laid out in stark terms the assignment he had for him.  “I know you’re a good ballplayer, ” he told him. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.” Robinson bristled. “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”  “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” the white man replied.

Jackie Robinson had not been one to take racist insults passively. He was court martialed in the army for striking an officer who abused him, among other things, ordering him to sit in the back of a bus.  What Rickey asked of a man as proud, intelligent and combative as Robinson was almost unimaginable: not only must Robinson accept continuous denigration for six months, but he had to take it stoically, and in addition, show himself not simply to be as good as the white players, but better. Robinson and Rickey knew that if Robinson failed, in body or spirit, his race would be the victim. He was playing baseball for all blacks, and for the rest of the country too, knowing that how soon America would begin to escape the crippling culture of institutionalized and accepted racism would depend on him—his courage, his skill, his determination, and his character.

The 1947 season was a blur of racial epithets from the stands, snubs in the club house and cheap shots on the field. Jackie got hate letters and death threats;  pitchers threw at his head and legs, and catchers spit on his shoes, muttering “Nigger!” and worse. He answered the cruelty with silence, and something else: a dashing style of play not seen since the prime of Ty Cobb. Robinson was the Rookie of the Year in 1947, and two years later the National League’s MVP. His lifetime average was .311, and he was an immediate admittee into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Over his ten year career, he earned the love of Brooklyn, the respect of his teammates and the opposition too.

Mission accomplished.

After Robinson’s playing career, he became an aggressive civil rights advocate and a close ally of Dr. King. The stress Jackie Robinson endured as a player harmed his health and almost certainly shortened his life, which ended with a heart attack at the age of 53: he looked decades older. Yet few men or women have accomplished so much, no matter how much time they had to do it. Among his many perceptive quotes is this, summing up the essence of ethics:

“A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Jack Roosevelt Robinson, by his own standards, led an extraordinarily important life. Every year on April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Robinson’s legacy, but annual  recognition in one sport doesn’t do him justice, and indeed our society does not honor his memory enough or teach the lessons of his life to our children sufficiently for them to understand its significance to their lives.. For Jackie Robinson proved what a combination of ability, principle, sacrifice and character can accomplish. He proved that one man can change a nation.

[ You can read a lot more about Robinson, and see some videos as well, here, here, and here.]

26 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Jackie Robinson (1919-1972)

      • Unless said movie was made by James Cameron or Oliver Stone, though I doubt either of them could put a tarnish on Robinson’s reputation.

        • Hollywood already made “The Jackie Robinson Story”, the biopic film, 62 years ago, directed by Alfred Green, starring Robinson as himself and the wondrous Ruby Dee as his wife, Rae. Got a good critical and popular reception. It’s still available in home video.

          • Don’t you think it’s unwatchable? Robinson is no actor, so the whole movie feels like one of those cable crime show re-enactments. He deserved a real, top-flight bio, starring Denzel or someone of equal stature.

            • Agreed, Jack, pretty amateurish, except for Ruby Dee, now 87 years old, God bless ‘er. She’s always been top-notch.

  1. Jackie, Jesse, and Jim Thorpe are among my favorite sports heroes. Not because they were minorities, but because they excelled and were men of strong character. They played for their love of sports and competition. They didn’t perform for a big paycheck. All three played for or served their country as well. I can’t imagine the strength of their spirit on or off the field.

    • I still get an ironic chuckle about what happened at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Adolf Hitler had hoped to make the games a showpiece for “superior Aryan” ethnicity. It really pissed him off, and he stormed out of the stadium, when that “uppity” American Black man, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals (outdoing some German competitors in the process).

  2. I was 12 in 1947, and was excited about Jackie, even though he was on the Dodgers, not my beloved Phillies. He stole home in one of his first games, and most people, including me, thought it was illegal, or at least unsporting. His base running unnerved lots of pitchers. He was the most exciting base runner–the first exciting base runner until then. By now his exploits have been way surpassed, but then–my oh my, THERE was a ball player.

  3. Ted Williams made it his life’s aim to have people pass by him on the street and say, “There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” I wish more people would take notice of Jackie and remember him with a thought like, “Arguably he is the bravest man who ever was a citizen of the United States.” He certainly was one of history’s most influential Americans.

    Close after a few things Jesus of Nazareth said, Robinson’s quote on the importance of a life, which is also his epitaph, for most of my adult life has been my personal #1 inspirational quote.

    Ever curious, I would like to know: Was his middle name Roosevelt from birth? Taken from Theodore Roosevelt? Was it added sometime in his teen years, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President? Or is there some other background story to Jackie’s middle name?

      • I always presumed what you understand to be the case. Teddy was another extraordinarily influential and inspiring man. Right or wrong, I still have the impression that the use of the name Roosevelt among most Americans of African lineage is intended to honor the memory of FDR.

        • One of my favorite Teddy quotes, and one which I think Robinson would have understood:

          “Aggressive fighting for the right is one of the noblest sports the world affords.”

      • With my family’s rich military history, my grandpa, who grew up in North Dakota, was named after T.R. immediately after the Spanish-American war and before he was President.

  4. I agree with you; FDR was enormously popular in the black population. Look at the song “The Face on the Dime” from Harold Rome’s 1946 musical CALL ME MISTER, sung by a black soldier returning home after World War II:

    “Just a face on a dime, on a shiny new dime.
    How can I even start to tell what’s in my heart?
    At the face on a dime, on a shiny new dime —
    He’s not long in the past, but his name sure will last
    Down through time.

    Let the few rant and scandal and doubt him;
    They did that to Abe Lincoln before.
    As for me, I’ll tell my kids about him —
    Yes, sir, they’ll know the score.

    When it came to the end, I knew I’d lost a friend.
    Through the earth, us plain guys brushed a tear from our eyes.
    For we knew that the world was a poorer and colder place
    Without that face on the dime —
    The face on the shiny new dime.”

  5. Reblogged this on Ethics Alarms and commented:

    Today is Jackie Robinson’s birthday. He would be 94, but he lived only slightly more than half that long. He was one of our greatest ethics heroes, and I’d like to honor Mr. Robinson by reblogging a post from April 16 of last year.

  6. First-Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson is available for the eponymous price at Dollar Trees everywhere. I don’t get money for saying that, and I don’t need to. Go pick it up.

  7. Who is the photographer of this Jackie Robinson photo? I own a drawing by Charles White of this exact photo. Did this African-American athlete and master artist ever meet? Thanks.

      • Dear Jack,

        Thanks for your response. Attached are two pictures of my artwork that I believe is worth much. The artist is Charles Wilbert White, a renown African-American master artist who died in 1979 and lived in Los Angeles, CA. Your referenced photo verifies with great certainty that the drawing in my possession is indeed that of the late-African-American hero and MLB’s 1st black player, Jackie Robinson! I wish I had some confirmation these two met or that my artwork is included in a Charles Wilbert White raisonne’. Such documentation would confirm what I’m believing is true – that this is an authentic drawing (sketch) by Charles Wilbert White of Jackie Robinson! Thanks for your interest and any assistance is appreciated!

        Sincerely, Anthony J. Artis

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