Jackie Robinson And The American Dilemma

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Racism. Unfortunately, it is an American dilemma still being battled today. However, in 1919, the year Jackie Robinson was born, was a particularly devastating year in regards to this matter. Case in point, the horrific death of a 17-year-old African-American boy, Eugene Williams. Both whites and blacks crossed paths mid-summer on Lake Michigan beaches. “Some of the black teens protesting against the informal segregation separating their swimming area of that of the whites were exchanging taunts and rocks with the white boys on the beach” (Wilson, x). Eugene ended up in the water, not knowing how to swim. The whites threw a rock that hit him square in the forehead which caused his death by drowning. The person who did this was never arrested or convicted, therefore leading to riots. More deaths included in that summer, were those initiated by whites killing two innocent black men setting in motion, more riots. “23 blacks and 15 whites were dead, another 537 were injured and a thousand more had lost their homes to arsonists” (Wilson, x). Not only do riots and killings show factors of racism during this time, but the Ku Klux Klan as well. This white supremacy group with manifested racist attitudes believed blacks were racially inferior. This is the culture and mindset that Jackie Robinson was born into.

Growing up an athlete, Jackie had no idea what was in store for him. Starting in third grade, he created a soccer team that ended up beating the sixth-graders where “his athletic prowess showed very early” (Wilson, 4). Moreover, into high school, he ventured out into other sports, including baseball and track. Right off the bat, he impressed the coaches with his skill set for each of the sports. While playing shortstop on the baseball team he showed off his phenomenal hand-eye coordination. On the track team he took part in the pole vault along with two different types of jumps, the long and broad, the broad jump being the one he excelled in more. For instance, he had a 23’1” leap that won his conference title (Wilson, 9). He Jackie decided to join the football team his junior year, a little later than most of the kids. With that being said, he did not see much playing time, he sat on the bench. Fortunately, he was a lot more involved the following year. He was able to help the team as the quarterback and through that, he demonstrated how he was a college football prospect of the first rank. He also participated in basketball as a guard as well as a forward, but the list does not stop there, he also had the chance to get involved with tennis too. It was no shock that he won a title in one of his tournaments. During his childhood, it is clear that Jackie Robinson was no stranger to sports.

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Furthermore, he took the step of going to college. He started at Pasadena Junior College, JPC, a college much less expensive, where students did not have to pay for their tuition. During his time at JPC, Jackie was the star of all sports he played; basketball, baseball, football, and track. After spending two years there, he transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA. There were a couple of major factors that made him choose this. “First it was near enough to home to permit Jackie to commute and remain close to family. Second, his brother Frank favored UCLA’s bid. If Jackie went to UCLA, Frank could continue to attend his games and advise him. Third, UCLA was also pursuing Jackie’s buddy, Ray Bartlett; if they attended together they could maintain their friendship” (Wilson, 16). After exceeding in all the sports he played, academics began to decline. His grades were dropping and he even received an “E”, the letter grade you get when you fail to complete a course. He was averaging mostly C’s and D’s, in required courses and classes relative to his major. Through his senior year, he fell in love with a girl who would later become his wife. “He simply could not see how a college degree would help a black man get any sort of professional job, and in the end, the real reason may have been that he was simply not interested in his studies” (Wilson, 24). Even after all of his mother and girlfriend's objections, he went against their wishes and decided to drop out in early 1941.

Shortly after, he was drafted into the military in 1942. Following that, in 1945 he joined the Kansas City Monarchs, a baseball team playing in the Negro American League. With concerns from previous situations, for example; in 1937 Ray and Jackie participated in a game they thought they would be compensated for, and were never given the money. He was not happy to be a part of the team but did it for the money so he would be able to support his family. Rachel was also upset because she knew this meant Jackie would be traveling a lot, and she would not be able to spend as much time with him when she graduated. The conditions on the road were not anything to brag about either. It was hard to find decent places to stay, they were playing double-headers, and rarely getting fed warm meals. He was never really into Negro leagues, “it was nothing more than a short-term proposition. It was a dead-end job, and he really saw himself as more of a football or basketball player who just dabbled in baseball” (Wilson, 45). Jackie and the rest of the Negro league did not see eye-to-eye on subjects that were important to him such as, he did not like how the other players would often go out get drunk, party, and sleep around. They thought it was odd Jackie and Rachel were waiting to consummate. Another reason there were complications was that most of the players involved were unmotivated, undetermined with no drive or sense of hard work. On the other hand, it is Jackie’s first nature to be competitive and willing to do whatever it takes. “Robinson concluded his assessment for the Negro leagues by calling them a pretty miserable way to make a buck. He found it incomprehensible that players would devote years of their lives to a second-class existence with no hope of advancement, yet he recognized that they have no better available options” (Wilson, 47). A mixture of these components is what led to his objections to Negro league baseball.

Jackie Robinson moved on to more remarkable things, like in 1950, when he became the first African-American to play organized baseball. This opportunity came upon him when Branch Rickey offered him a contract to play for the AAA Montreal Royals and eventually made it the Brooklyn Dodgers. With something of such importance he stated “I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that I am the first member of my race to play organized baseball. I realize how much it means to me, my race, and baseball” (Wilson, 61). As previously mentioned, he has extreme dedication, motivation and works hard, and took these pieces of expertise into his spring training. Not expecting so much attention on his first practice on March 3rd, he was overwhelmed by reporters and other press. Though bombarded with questions regarding him being the first African-American player, it was prominent that Jackie was eager to learn new positions, “he had the greatest aptitude of anyone” (Wilson, 70). With first base under his belt, he moved over to learn second. The players were rude and jealous of his abilities, therefore not making any effort to welcome their new teammate to the team. “As anticipated Robinson broke a path for others to follow. The Dodgers signed catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe and assigned them to Nashua in Class A New England League” (Wilson, 71). The actions of these men would soon become the start of breaking the color barrier.

In addition to the media, Jackie Robinson’s debut was brought to the fan’s attention, some of them with stronger opinions than others. With the number of people noticing him, for an event of such historical significance, he became anxious. He had previously talked with Rickey on how to maintain his composure in multiple different situations. In the beginning, the other Dodgers players frequently ignored Jackie, he described the first time putting on his jersey as “feeling like a stranger or unwanted guest (Wilson, 86). It was not as big of an issue as some of the other critics, because within just two short months he had made friends with the other teammates and they were finally accepting him. Conversely, one of the Philadelphia general managers, Herb Pennock had a problem with Jackie and he made it clear that he absolutely did not want an African-American playing on their field. Herb used vulgar vocabulary describing Jackie while on the phone with Rick, discussing his complaints. Similarly, there was one particular antagonistic individual who made it obvious he was a racist, Ben Chapman. “He ordered his players to join him in riding Robinson unmercifully, using vile racial epithets worse than Robinson had heard in his professional career,” (Wilson, 89.) Even after all these derogatory terms were shouted at him, he did not react, “enhancing his reputation as strong and courageous,” (Wilson, 89). As for the fans, more blacks started coming to the games as whites did not. They were afraid of how the blacks would react in such a setting, though they all happened to keep a professional manner.

Talking about professionalism, Jackie made a bold testimony marking one of his outstanding achievements in the year 1949. He made statements that pleased the press and continued to impress the people in his community. As for his baseball career, he started slow but ended up “hitting .344, second in the league, and led the league in RBI’s” (Wilson, 113). He increased his batting to .366 and played in all 156 games of the season. “His .342 average was enough to win the batting championship, beating out Stan Musical at .339 and Enos Slaughter at .336. An even greater honor came his way after the season when the baseball writers voted him baseball’s highest honor, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award” (Wilson, 115). Robinson had the honor of being the first African-American to win the National League Most Valuable Player award, which was only one of his outstanding accomplishments during his 1949 season.  

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