When Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field in the first inning of a game against the Boston Braves on April 15th, 1947, he became the first Black player in the Major Leagues since 1884, when catcher Moses Walker played in 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings (Light 119). For the next 60 years, an unwritten rule separated the two races, but Robinson changed all of that. While he had a relatively uneventful day on the field, going 0-3,the 28 year old Jackie scored the deciding run in a 5-3 victory (Dunham).
More importantly, however, Robinson’s appearance represented an impending permanent change in the nation’s pastime that would forever shape the forces of modern baseball. By becoming the first Black to play modernized baseball, Robinson opened the door for many other achievements and firsts by African Americans. This impact can still be seen today, as Robinson’s arrival set the precedence for the shift from baseball being an all white sport to a sport of all ethnic backgrounds by opening up racial barriers.
It can also be said that the way that Jackie’s events unfolded helped to spearhead the Civil Rights movement by bringing to light the important issues that faced the Blacks, especially with his calm reaction to the daily death threats that he and his family received. Robinson starting the full integration of baseball also led to an era of dominance by the National League, winning a majority of the All Star games from 1950 to 1982. These dominant National League teams were led mostly by African American players, something that the American League was not as quick to pick up on.
The overall impact of Jackie Robinson was widespread, as his effect on baseball is still seen today, with his number 42 jersey being retired by all of baseball in 1997 as a lasting tribute to the profound effect he had on modern baseball (Light 781). Perhaps the most obvious impact of Jackie Robinson’s appearance in professional baseball was the racial barriers that it tore down. In the 1940s, baseball was largely considered to be a white man’s sport. However, with Jackie Robinson’s actions, he opened the door for other ethnic groups to be included in the Major Leagues.
Eventually, most major league teams adopted large numbers of foreign born players onto their rosters, which not only helped sell tickets, but also made the club more diverse. In 1996, for example, the Los Angeles Dodgers led the league with 45. 2% of all Major and minor league players from foreign countries (Light 347). At this time, the Dodgers’ pitching staff included two Dominicans, one Italian, one Mexican, and one Japanese in their starting rotation, and a Venezuelan, a Mexican, and two men from the United States in their bullpen. This ethnic diversity was not just seen in the Dodgers.
The trend grew everywhere. By Opening Day 2003, 26. 1% of all Major League players were foreign-born (Light 347). The biggest foreign integration came from the Latin community, mainly from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Robinson’s effect on integration led to a renewed emphasis on foreign scouting for ballplayers in the mid 1900s, with Cuban shortstop Zoilo Versalles the prime example after winning the MVP award in 1965 and helping the Twins win the pennant (Light 239). Also key in the Hispanic integration was the scouting in the Dominican Republic.
Following Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947, many teams sent scouts over to the Dominican Republic to evaluate top young players, with some clubs even starting baseball schools (Light 265). These happenings helped to usher in the careers of some Dominican greats such as the Alou brothers, Julio Franco, Pedro Martinez, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and Sammy Sosa. Another country that gained prominence in the game was Japan. Japanese baseball players were routinely signed from the Japanese teams from the 1970s and on, with such important players as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, and Hideki Matsui.
Japanese imports also helped to increase the Major League’s popularity in Asia. For example, when Matsui and Ichiro played a game in the 2003 season, over 50 million Japanese tuned in to watch it live at 8 a. m. local time (Light 503). All of these increases in the ethnic popularity of baseball show how Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier greatly impacted modern professional baseball. Another interesting result that came from Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier was the ways that his involvement in baseball helped to advance the Civil Rights movement at the time.
Key to this was the legality of segregation via the Jim Crow laws in the United States at the time, as upheld by the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 (Dunham). Due to this, there were still many racist sentiments present in the United States by white activists. The true impact of how Robinson’s debut in professional baseball impacted the Civil Rights movement can be seen in the fact that Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed and played Jackie before the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v.
Board of Education case, which stated that separate but equal divisions between Blacks and Whites was not Constitutional, and instead reinforced the concept of integration (Smolensky). However, there were still many people who displayed racist sentiments about the integration of baseball. Some Whites argued that Black players were not as talented and that integration would hurt the Negro League (Dunham). Most upsetting, though, is many White baseball players’ refusal to play on a team with a Black player.
Upon Robinson’s signing to the Dodgers, four players requested to be traded since they refused to play with a Black man (Dunham). Despite the violence and hate that Robinson experienced, his trials and response to adversity ultimately helped the African American plight in baseball. Many now saw racial segregation as immoral, and teams enjoyed the increased revenue brought by more fan attendance (Dunham). Robinson himself was a great activist when it came to Black rights, giving his support to the Republican Party and their efforts to pass a Civil Rights Act.
Robinson wrote many letters to holders of key government positions in order to gain Black support. He even received a letter from Martin Luther King, Jr. personally thanking him for his efforts to aid the Black cause in October of 1964 (Robinson 205). Robinson even refused to throw out the first pitch of the 1972 World Series until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn convinced him that Major League Baseball was taking steps to hire African Americans for management positions (Robinson 172). Jackie’s efforts paid off in the end, both in baseball and government.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed following much effort by the Republican party, and Frank Robinson was soon hired as the first Black manager in baseball in 1974 (Light 120). It is clear that Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier had an impact on the rights of Blacks in the future, both in baseball and out of baseball. Another immediate effect of baseball’s integration could be seen in the subsequent dominance by the National League in All Star games. This was chiefly due to the large numbers of African American stars in the National League.
The American League itself was slower to integrate than the National League was, resulting in more NL teams getting the best Black players from the Negro Leagues. Between 1950 and 1982, the American League squad of All-Stars only won six of the games (“All Star Results”). In fact, when the league started handing out an All Star Game MVP award in 1962, a majority of the winners were Black (“All Star Results”). The success of the National League teams of signing the top Black players was seen in the substantial careers that many of the Black players had.
The All Star games became a showcase for the top Black talent in the league, featuring such stars as Ernie Banks, Willie Mays (who made 24 All Star games), Hank Aaron, Bobby Bonds, Joe Morgan, Elston Howard, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe. Many Black players emerged from anonymity during this time period due to the contributions of Jackie Robinson. Despite the obvious contributions of Jackie Robinson’s life to further modern baseball, some might argue that his effect is no longer felt.
Many analysts cite the declining number of Black baseball players as a cause for concern. In 1959, 12 years after Jackie’s debut, 17. 25% of Major Leaguers were Black. By 1975, that number had grown to 27%. However, in 2010, 63 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, the number had dropped to just 9. 5%, and there were 17 teams with two or fewer African-Americans on their rosters (Nightengale). Although these numbers may be slightly disturbing, they are not alarming and in no ways are bad.
Although it is true that the number of Blacks in baseball has decreased, the number of Blacks playing professional sports as a whole has not. Mostly due to more childhood exposure to other sports, many Black athletes have gone on to play basketball, football, and other sports instead (Nightengale). None of this would have been possible, however, without Jackie Robinson. If Jackie had not broken the color barrier, there would have been no precedent for Blacks in sports, meaning that integration in all professional sports would have been delayed much longer.
It is without a doubt that Jackie Robinson greatly influenced modern professional baseball by breaking the color barrier in 1947. His actions opened up many other racial barriers, and Major League Baseball now enjoys scouting players and getting fans from countries all over the world. Robinson also helped to push the Civil Rights movement forward, in government and in baseball. Today, four African-Americans are MLB managers, three are general managers, and two hold high positions working for the commissioner (Nightengale).
Robinson also helped the National League excerpt its dominance over the American League, led by their marquee Black players. All of this is a great leap forward from where professional baseball was prior to Robinson’s debut on April 15th. Perhaps the penultimate symbol of how important Robinson was to baseball can be seen when the league established Jackie Robinson Day in 2004 (Light 245). On April 15th of every subsequent year, every player would wear Jackie’s number 42, to serve as a reminder of the legacy left behind by baseball’s ultimate fighter.
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