Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Jackie Robinson's crossing of the Rubicon

April 15, 2012 by Michael Simzak


Sometimes it is possible to change everything simply by showing up. A person can symbolically right generations of wrongs by just walking through an open door. Occasionally it is possible to start and entire movement with a single step. Such was the case for Jack Roosevelt Robinson when he arrived at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. He was going to change everything, he was going to right those wrongs, he was going to start that movement with his first step as he ran to second base.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Robinson could hardly have imagined what was to come for him as his mother moved her family from Georgia to California in search of paradise in 1920. His journey would take him from a working-class neighborhood in Pasadena where his was the only black family on the block to watching his older brother Mack win the silver medal in the 200-meter sprint at the 1936 Summer Olympics, finishing behind Jesse Owens—the man who stared down Hitler.

Was it at that point that Jackie Robinson started to dream? Where was his head when he transferred to UCLA, where he would become the first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: football, baseball, basketball, and track? Did he really think he had a future in baseball when he hit .097 during his only season on the team at UCLA? Did he think he would have his number retired by Major League Baseball when he sat in the brig in Texas awaiting his court martial for failing to move to the back of the bus? What did he think when that case was dismissed and he was given his honorable discharge from the army? What dreams did Jackie Robinson conjure about his future as he rode a bus throughout the Midwest with the Kansas City Monarch of the Negro Leagues in 1945? Surely, he had no idea of what was to come.

The idea of a black baseball player playing in the major leagues was just that: an idea, a thought that floated around like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. No black baseball player had reached the major league level since the 1880s when the last black Baseball players were chased from the league and the color line was forcefully drawn. There were a few teams, scouts, and managers that flirted with the thought of signing one of the black baseball stars over the intervening years. After all, what baseball insider wouldn’t be infatuated with the dominance of Satchel Paige, or captivated by the speed of “Cool Papa” Bell, or enamored with the power of Josh Gibson. But ultimately such flirtations were ended by the cold harsh shower of segregation, and the intoxicating allure of signing a black player remained a poisoned chalice from which none would drink. None, that is, until Branch Rickey.

The Brooklyn Dodgers were the last of baseball’s neighborhood teams. The borough and the team were inextricably linked—as the Dodgers went, so went Brooklyn, and as Brooklyn went, so went the Dodgers. But Brooklyn and its beloved Boys of Summer were struggling to compete with the glitz and glamor of Manhattan, and the Dodgers lagged behind their rivals, the Giants and Yankees, in prestige and popularity.

Rickey knew that the status quo was not good enough to resurrect the Dodgers; he had no choice but to eat from the forbidden fruit to improve the team on the field and the attendance in the stands. After securing the blessing of the Dodgers’ board of directors, Rickey set out on a three-year odyssey to find his man: someone capable of suffering the slings and arrows of vitriolic hatred and strong enough to not fight back. He found his man in Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who had moved crossed country, watched his brother win silver, won those varsity letters, escaped that court martial, and ridden the bus to get to this point.

The impact of Robinson’s first steps onto the baseball field represented a symbolic crossing of the Rubicon. His breaking of baseball’s color barrier did not integrate sports. After all, Robinson himself played on integrated teams at UCLA. Robinson did not integrate baseball; that distinction goes to Moses “Fleetwood” Walker in 1883.

Robinson’s success did not result in the immediate and widespread integration of baseball, professional sports, or society as a hole. It took two more years for the military to integrate and another seven years for Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in schools, and it was not until 1956 that the last baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, integrated. And even though the sun still rose in the east over Brooklyn on April 16, 1947, it is hard to escape the feeling that things had not changed in an inescapable way.

Mike Simzak is the Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.

Sign up for our email newsletter