Long before Black History Month, There Was Jackie Robinson

Article excerpt

Byline: Oliver Andresen

"Michael Jordan is going to retire from basketball."

"Yes, Michael Jordan is going to retire this time forever more."

"And Michael Jordan is a great athlete."

"Yes, Michael Jordan is the world's greatest athlete."

"And Michael Jordan with his basketball career has done a lot for Chicago."

"Yes, for several years Michael Jordan made the Chicago Bulls the most prominent sports team in the world."

"And Michael Jordan is black."

"Yes, Michael Jordan is...So?"

Oh, an inconsequential observation today - but 50 years ago? In no way!

On Aug. 28, 1945, Branch Rickey, general manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Jackie Robinson, an already established athlete in baseball, basketball, football and track in various minor leagues, to play professional baseball. But Robinson, age 26, 6 feet tall with broad shoulders, college educated, former lieutenant in the United States Army and a teetotaler Methodist was black.

"I want you to be the first Negro player in the major leagues. Can you take it? Can you take everything that's going to come your way?" Rickey asked Robinson.

"Do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?" Robinson questioned.

"No, I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back," Rickey responded. "You've got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else."

Robinson, a proud and volatile man with ebony skin, nodded, reached for Rickey's hand and then signed the contract.

The rage of bigotry was instant. Sports pages throughout the United States supported the supposition that the blacks were generally inferior to whites. Bobby Feller, of the Cleveland Indians, claimed that Robinson could not hit big-league pitching because his shoulders were not built like white players. Alvin Dark, a Boston infielder, said, "Negroes don't think as quick as whites." Most sports enthusiasts customarily agreed.

Neither Rickey nor Robinson was surprised.

On the evening of Jan. 31, 1919, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the youngest of six children of sharecroppers Jerry and Mallie Robinson, was born on a white-owned plantation near Cairo, Ga. …