2) Breaking the Color Line – Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey
In 1947, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues. Robinson was a gifted athlete who was the first student at UCLA to letter in four different sports. He signed on to play shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs upon leaving the army in 1944. After a successful season with the Monarchs in which he hit .387, Robinson was contacted by Branch Rickey, the general manager and partial owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
- What kinds of challenges did Robinson face in the major leagues? What kind of reception did he get on the occassion of his major league debut?
For help, see the Special Presentation, "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s."
Branch Rickey changed the nature of baseball in 1920 when he developed the farm system for minor league affiliates while he was the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Next, he became interested in altering the complexion of the sport by signing an African-American ball player to the major leagues. The first page of a 1946 Look magazine article, entitled "A Branch Grows in Brooklyn," features a photograph of Rickey and the caption: "I cannot face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all that I can call my own."
- Why does Rickey describe segregation in religious terms?
- Who is he attempting to appeal to a year before he introduces Jackie Robinson to the major leagues?
- How does this photograph from Look magazine portray Rickey?
Many black players had the skills to compete with their white counterparts on the field but Robinson was selected for his ability to handle the pressures that would come off the diamond. He demonstrated poise in the face of Jim Crow laws, taunts by white players and fans, and even death threats. In his 1955 interview with Davis Walsh and his 1956 speech for the "One Hundred Percent Wrong Club" banquet, Branch Rickey described the two-year personal and financial investment that resulted in the signing of Jackie Robinson:
I must be sure that the man was good on the field, but more dangerous to me, at that time, and even now, is the wrong man off the field . . . I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.
- What were Robinson’s "responsibilities . . . to his race"?
- How did Rickey expect him to act in public? Why?
- What were the potential hazards if Robinson responded aggressively to racism on or off the field?
- What did Branch Rickey gain by signing a talented African-American baseball player? What were the potential benefits for the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field and in the stands?
- What did Jackie Robinson gain by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers? What were the potential hazards?
- Are there different expectations made of contemporary athletes? To what extent are they the same?
After describing his experience, Rickey offered his impression of race relations in 1950s America:
I am completely color-blind . . . I know that America . . . is more interested in the grace of a man's swing . . . and his speed afoot . . . America . . . will become instantly more interested in those marvelous, beautiful qualities than they are in the pigmentation of a man's skin, or indeed in the last syllable of his name.
- Why does Rickey conclude his speech with these sentiments? What do they suggest about baseball?
- What does this statement suggest about how or why race relations can improve in America? According to Rickey, what is the basis of such improvement?
- What is the appeal of this argument? Is this a realistic argument?
- Does Rickey provide a fair assessment of America in the 1950s? Is this a fair assessment of contemporary America?