In this story from August 1948, Hall of Famer and American hero Jackie Robinson recalls the challenges he faced in breaking baseball's color barrier.
I’ll never forget the day Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, asked me to join his baseball organization, I would be the first Negro to play in organized baseball—that is, if I were good enough to make the grade.
Mr. Rickey’s office was large and simply furnished. There were four framed pictures on the wall. One was a kodachrome snapshot of Leo Durocher, the field manager of the Dodgers. Another was a portrait of the late Charlie Barrett, one of the greatest scouts in the game. A third was of General Chennault. And the fourth and largest smiled down one me with calm reassurance, the portrait of the sad, trusting Abraham Lincoln who had pleaded for malice toward none…
This was the never-to-be-forgotten day when our Marines landed on the soil of Japan, August 29, 1945. It was a hot day with venetian blinds shutting out the sun, and the Brooklyn clamor of Montague Street mingled with the noisy traffic around Borough Hall.
From behind his desk the big, powerful, bushy-browed Branch Rickey, who seemed a combination of father and boss, mapped out to me his daring strategy to break the color line in Major League Baseball.
I was excited at the opportunity. It was a tremendous challenge. But was I good enough?
“Mr. Rickey,” I said, “it sounds like a dream come true—not only for me but for my race. For 70 years there has been racial exclusion in Big League Baseball. There will be trouble ahead—for you, for me, for my people and for baseball.”
“Trouble ahead,” Rickey rolled the phrase over his lips as though he liked the sound. “You know, Jackie, I was a small boy when I took my first train ride. On the same train was an old couple, also riding for the first time. We were going through the Rocky Mountains. The old man sitting by the window looked forward and said to his wife, ‘Trouble ahead, Ma! We’re high up over a precipice and we’re gonna run right off.’
“To my boyish ears the noise of the wheels repeated ‘Trouble-a-head-trouble-ahead…’ I never hear train wheels to this day but what I think of this. But our train course bent into a tunnel right after the old man spoke, and we came out on the other side of the mountain. That’s the way it is with most trouble ahead in this world, Jackie—if we use the common sense and courage God gave us. But you’ve got to study the hazards and build wisely.”
I’ve never forgotten that little story. It helped me through many of the rough moments I was to face in the future. I signed my contract that day with a humble feeling of great responsibility. I prayed that I would be equal to the test.
“God is with us in this, Jackie,” Mr. Rickey said quietly. “You know your Bible. It’s good, simple Christianity for us to face realities and to recognize what we’re up against. We can’t go out and preach and crusade and bust our heads against a wall. We’ve got to fight out our problems together with tact and common sense.”
To give me experience and seasoning, Mr. Rickey sent me the first year to play with the Montreal Royals, a farm club for the Brooklyn organization. I was the cause of trouble from the start—but we expected it. Pre-season exhibition games were cancelled because of “mixed athletes", although the official reason was always different.
Some of my teammates may have resented me. If so, I didn’t blame them. They had problems enough playing ball without being a part of a racial issue. I tried hard not to develop “rabbit ears", a malady picked up by all athletes who are sensitive to abuse and criticism shouted from the fans.
One of my top thrills was my opening game for Montreal at Jersey City. The pressure was on and I was very nervous. But during that contest I slapped out four hits, including a home run. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better start.
But as the season began to unroll game after game, my play grew erratic. I was trying too hard. I knew I had to keep my temper bridled at every turn. Guarding so carefully against outbursts can put a damper on one’s competitive spirit.
Every athlete at some time or other likes “to blow his top.” It seldom does any harm and acts like a safety valve. A hitter in a slump may drive the ball deep to the infield, then leg it to first sure that he has beaten the throw. The umpire calls him out. With this the frustrated athlete jerks off his cap, slams it on the ground and thunders all his pent-up irritations at the umpire. The crowd roars its approval or dislike depending on whether the player is on the home or visiting team. The umpire merely turns his back, and the ball player after giving vent to his unhappiness, trots back to the bench feeling much better. It’s all a part of the game.
But I didn’t dare let loose this way. Many would have dubbed me a “hothead” and point to my outburst as a reason why Negroes should not play in organized baseball. This was one of the hardest problems I had to face.
As the season rolled along, however, the players became accustomed to me. My play improved. When the season ended, Montreal had won the Junior World Series. I admit proudly to winning the batting championship of the league with an average .349.
On April 10, 1947, Branch Rickey made the announcement that gave me my greatest thrill. I was to join the Brooklyn Dodgers and become the first Negro to compete in the Major Leagues.
To add to my regular problems of bucking the expected publicity and criticism from the usual quarters, I was placed at a strange position—first base. At Montreal I had played second base.
It was Montreal all over again, only this time the pressure was much greater, the competition keener, and the stakes tremendous. It wasn’t a question so much of a colored athlete making good as a big leaguer, but whether the whole racial question would be advanced or retarded.
I prayed as I never had before.
As a first baseman I had many fielding shortcomings. I worked hard to iron them out and both fans and players by and large were rooting for me. This encouragement was a big factor in helping me improve my game.
Again I faced the same problems. An opposing player drove a hard grounder to the infield. When he crossed first base his spikes bit painfully into my foot. Accident or deliberate? Who can tell? But the first reaction of a competitive ball player is to double up fists and lash out. I saw a blinding red. It took every bit of my discipline to bridle my temper. But when my teammates rushed to my support in white hot anger, it gave me the warmest feeling I’ve ever felt. At that moment I belonged.
That year the Dodgers won the pennant. I was thrilled to know that my efforts were considered an important factor in winning. But I also cherished another triumph. Baseball as a whole had come to accept the Negro. From now on the colored ball player, to make the grade, will simply have to be a good enough player. As Mr. Rickey says, a champion is a champion in America, black or white.
This story first appeared in the August 1948 issue of Guideposts.
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