Jackie Robinson’s life and career had a lasting impact on baseball and America, as did his stance against antisemitism.
Famed baseball player Jackie Robinson was serving in the Army as a second lieutenant, stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and Fort Hood, Texas. While he was there, prejudiced white officers wouldn’t give him a chance to try out for the baseball team. After being turned in to military police by a bus driver for refusing to sit in the rear seating area for Blacks while on the base, Robinson faced a court martial for disobedience but eloquently won his case.
After receiving an honorable discharge, and with the doors closed to Blacks in many fields, including professional baseball, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League in 1945.
At that time, all major league players were white. Fair-minded men at the time had tried to promote the integration of Black people in baseball without success. Boston’s Jewish city councilman Isidore Muchnick threatened to pass legislation to ban Sunday baseball in Boston unless the Red Sox granted a tryout to three Negro Leaguers. A tryout was arranged for three players from different Negro League teams —Jackie Robinson, Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams.
Robinson was the most impressive of the trio, prompting Red Sox manager Joe Cronin to tell Muchnick that he hoped the team would sign him. But Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey never showed interest. Unknown to them, though, Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey had been following Robinson’s activities on and off the field much earlier. Rickey wanted to break the color barrier but needed the right man, not necessarily the best player. He believed that man was Jackie Robinson.
Rickey stunned baseball and America by signing Jackie to a professional baseball contract in the off-season of 1945. Robinson would start in the minor leagues and earn his way to the big leagues. Rickey urged Robinson to marry his love, Rachel Isum, who during the war had worked as a riveter in an aircraft factory while graduating as a registered nurse. Robinson took his advice.
In 1946, the Robinsons made their home in Montreal as Jackie starred for the top minor league affiliate of the Dodgers. In 1947, Robinson made it to the big league.
As a Dodger, Robinson received hundreds of threatening letters in the mail warning him not to take the field in several cities. Jackie Robinson’s major league career lasted 10 seasons and ended in 1956. His .311 career batting average, daring on the basepaths and defensive ability would guarantee him enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Robinson often said how lucky he was to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers because of the borough’s large Jewish population (more than a third of Brooklyn’s citizens in the Robinson era were Jewish).
“They were very welcoming to me and I made many friends that lasted through the years,” Robinson said in a published letter.
Life After Baseball
At age 37 and with health issues, including diabetes and heart problems, Robinson accepted the position of vice president of Chock Full o’ Nuts, a chain of coffee shops in New York, after the ’56 season.
Toward the end of his career, he wanted a bigger home with more green land. The Robinsons decided on Stamford, Connecticut. Redlining made it difficult to find a home, but eventually they found what they wanted. They had to wait as the finishing touches were applied, however. Their stressful story was chronicled in a local paper and read by Andrea Simon, the wife of the co-founder of Simon & Schuster. She suggested the Robinsons move in with her family until their place was ready. Andrea’s daughter, Carly, a tomboy who wanted to play outfield for the Dodgers, was thrilled to have the Robinson family. But Carly Simon opted for the entertainment field when she decided to strike out on her own.
Jackie wasn’t just a figurehead in his new position. He worked hard on bettering the company and the relationship between management and employees. He also did what he could for civil rights and took part in meetings and marches. Robinson was at the forefront when it came to registering Black citizens to vote and urging them to study the candidates.
Robinson also found time to appear at dinners for Jewish causes. A frequent speaker against antisemitism, Jackie was especially harsh when antisemitism infected the Black community. In 1962, a Jewish businessman wanted to open a steakhouse in Harlem. Angry Black protesters didn’t like the idea. Robinson, who had a syndicated column in the New York Post at the time, compared the Black nationalists and their rhetoric to that of Nazi Germany.
In his autobiography, he said he was “ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when Black Americans were guilty of antisemitism. How could we stand against anti-Black prejudice if we are willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”
In 1964, Robinson helped found the Freedom National Bank in Harlem to help Black citizens. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was the bank’s first chairman of the board. (Jackie’s mother, who had been the daughter of slaves, chose his middle name to honor Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before her son was born.)
In the 1960s, the Robinsons held jazz concerts at their Stamford home to raise awareness and funds for the Civil Rights movement. Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn were just a few of the stars who performed on the spacious lawn.
1972 was the 25th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, and Jackie was invited to throw out the first pitch in the World Series at Cincinnati. Nine days later, on Oct. 24, 1972, Rachel was in the kitchen preparing breakfast. Jackie ran into the kitchen, put his arms around her, said “I love you,” and slumped to the floor dead of a heart attack. He was only 53.
His life and career had a lasting impact on baseball and America, as did his stance against antisemitism.
Author, columnist and public speaker Irwin Cohen, who lectures on several subjects, headed a national baseball publication and interviewed many legends of the game before working for the Detroit Tigers and earned a World Series ring. He may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com.