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Stealing Home: A tribute to Jackie Robinson

The National Baseball Hall of Fame quotes trailblazer Jackie Robinson: “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Robinson’s life had a huge impact, especially when he broke down the colour barrier in Major League Baseball and American society. His rookie season still stands as one of the most politically profound events in the history of organized sport.
Jackie Robinson takes infield practice in 1951. (Keystone/Getty Images)
Listen to the full episode53:59

The National Baseball Hall of Fame quotes trailblazer Jackie Robinson: "a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Robinson's life had a huge impact, especially when he broke down the colour barrier in Major League Baseball and American society. His rookie season still stands as one of the most politically profound events in the history of organized sport.

Every April 15, every team in the major leagues celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, and 2019 is the centennial of his birth. We observe both events with this rebroadcast of Paul Kennedy's 1997 documentary.

Buck O'Neil played in the Negro Leagues with Jackie Robinson. 1:36

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the number 42 is the answer to "the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything."

But 42 has significance far beyond a comic science fiction series. It's Jackie Robinson's old uniform number, and in tribute, the number has been retired by every team in Major League Baseball. No other player will ever wear that number again.

It was retired in 1997 to mark the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

That first game, in 1947, took place in a very different world  Although there many great players in the Negro Leagues (as they were then called — and many of those legendary players later made it into the Hall of Fame), none of them got the chance to play in the major or minor leagues.  

It's symbolic that in baseball, which was always referred to as the National Pastime, blacks were not allowed to play in the major or minor leagues. In essence racism was the National Pastime, not baseball.- Jules Tygiel

But Branch Rickey, the visionary general manager of the Dodgers, wanted to integrate baseball.  

It wasn't that he wanted to change society, but that he wanted to improve his team.

Rickey was keenly aware of the skill in the Negro leagues, and he knew the Dodgers would have a competitive advantage if they could tap into that talent.  

Jackie Robinson steals home in a 1948 game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. The Dodgers later moved to Los Angeles and Ebbets Field was torn down, but Robinson's legacy lives on. (The Associated Press)

He also knew it would be a tremendous struggle to overcome decades of segregation. It wouldn't be a matter of just succeeding in a single at bat; the first player would have to prove his right to be there daily, over baseball's long grinding season, against an endless array of racist opponents, on the field, and off.

So he needed to find not just the right ballplayer, but the right person — someone who could see the bigger picture, and with the self-confidence to let his talent do the talking.

Rickey found him in the college-educated, skilled, and fiercely competitive Jackie Robinson. During a year in the top minor league, playing with the old Montreal Royals, Robinson continually proved his talent and his courage.

So on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto a major league field, and changed history.

Guests in this episode:

  • Rick Weintraub saw Jackie Robinson play for the Dodgers in Ebbets Field during his first season in Major League Baseball.
  • Jules Tygiel was a writer and baseball historian. He's the author of Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy.
  • Former Negro American League star Buck O'Neil, former major league players Tommy Holmes, Gene Hermanski, Bobby Bragan, Warren Spahn, Joe Black, Stan Musial, Tommy Henrich and Ralph Branca (O'Neil, Spahn & Musial are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, as is Jackie Robinson).
  • Sportswriters Sam Lacey, Lester Rodney & Ira Berkow.
  • Paul Robeson Jr .was an American author, archivist and historian.

Further reading:

Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy by Jules Tygiel, (Oxford University Press, 1983).

Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, (Ballantine Books, 1997).
 



**This episode was produced by Paul Kennedy.

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