STATISTICALLY, Jackie Robinson’s membership in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame might seem to be a stretch.
He did have a .311 lifetime batting average, but he hit only 137 home runs and drove in a mere 734 runs over 10 years, respectable numbers, but not spectacular.
Seldom have statistics been more deceiving.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who would have been 100 years old this Thursday, was as important to baseball as anyone who ever played the game. If he had never been a six-time All-Star, or a National League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, a six-time World Series competitor, he still would have merited his own special wing in Cooperstown.
Jackie Robinson didn’t just change baseball. He changed America.
When the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Robinson to a contract in 1945, Major League Baseball had not had an African-American player since 1884, by racist design.
The National Basketball Association had no black players. The National Football League’s first African–Americans suited up in 1946, but breaking baseball’s color line was far more important.
At the end of World War II, professional baseball was far ahead of either the NBA or the NFL in fan popularity. In addition, it was obvious that Robinson was going to be a star. Branch Rickey, who signed him, knew he had the talent and the maturity (he would be 28 by the time he played his first major-league game in 1947) to excel.
The level of prejudice toward Robinson at that time might seem unfathomable now. He had been a four-sport star at UCLA. He had served as an officer in the U.S. Army in World War II. And yet, his signing raised the same racist hackles that school integration and other basic civil rights issues would later on.
Ten years before the Little Rock Nine, 18 years before the march on Selma, Robinson made an impact just as powerful in its own way when he stepped on the field for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
When Rickey signed him, he told Robinson he would have to hold his tongue against the myriad players, managers and fans who didn’t want him in their white sport. Rickey knew that the racial mood of the times would not tolerate anything less.
There were better players than Jackie Robinson in the Negro Leagues, the only option for African–Americans up until that time. Robinson, though, was anointed because he was seen as someone who could not only excel but excel with dignity in a world where he was not wanted.
“Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Robinson reportedly asked when Rickey laid out the rules.
Rickey replied that he was looking for someone who had “guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson took it, defeating his tormentors on the field while suffering their abuse in silence. And then, after earning Rookie of the Year honors, he took the gloves off and afterwards did not often suffer racists gladly, if at all.
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me,” he said. “All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
Because his chance came later than it would have for a white player, his career was relatively short, as was his life. He died far too young at the age of 53. He was a political activist for much of the time between his retirement in 1956 and his death in 1972.
Baseball has not forgotten Jackie Robinson. To honor him, all major-league players, managers, coaches and umpires now wear his number, 42, every April 15.
And anyone who honors courage and believes in fairness should remember him, too.