By now you all know April 15 isn’t just tax day, it’s also “Jackie Robinson Day.”
Since 2004, all Major League Baseball players have worn Robinson’s number (42) on that day in honor of his courage in becoming the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, which is a polite way of saying he broke racist segregation in professional American baseball. You all know who he is. Hopefully you were able to check out Bryce Harper’s tribute to Jackie Robinson this year, too. (Here’s a good link.)
Robinson’s background is even more interesting than his baseball career. He was born into a sharecropping family in Georgia in 1919. Sharecropping was a popular form of livelihood in the Reconstructed South. Sharecropping is where farmers tend land that’s not theirs and are allowed to keep a significant portion of the crops they raise. Luckily for Robinson, his family relocated to Pasadena just a year after he was born, so he never had to experience that harsh realities of the Reconstructed South. Sharecropping still exists today, in large swathes of Africa and Asia, but the only people who practice this method of farming in the U.S. are those who live in hippie cooperatives or religious communes.
Instead, he got to grow up in Los Angeles, where he found himself “Not Allowed” into many places because of the color of his skin. The institutionalized racism couldn’t keep Robinson down, though, not even as a kid. He lettered in five sports at John Muir High School: baseball, basketball, football, track and field, and … tennis. Yes, tennis. He won a boys singles tournament as a junior. This was in the 1930s, and -- get this -- the name of the tournament was “Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament.” Segregation abounded, and not just in the Old South.
As a student-athlete at UCLA, Jackie Robinson became the first Bruin to letter in four sports: baseball, basketball, football, and track and field. No small feat given UCLA’s sublime reputation in college sports. This is mostly well-known, as is the fact that Robinson played poorly on the baseball team. What is less well-known is that UCLA’s football team was one of the most desegregated in the country when Robinson played. There were, including Robinson, four black players on UCLA’s undefeated 1939 team. Things change.
Post-baseball, Robinson went on to become the first black sports telecaster, the first black vice president of a major American corporation, and an important philanthropist. While it is tempting to attribute these achievements of citizenship to a humble upbringing and a UCLA education, it makes more sense to attribute his lifelong fight against racism to … himself. Some people are just champions.
Jackie Robinson considered himself an independent in politics. His politics were fighting segregation and other forms of institutional racism. So it was that he found himself on the side of the Republican Party during much of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet he also defended the Johnson administration’s war in Vietnam. He publicly supported Richard Nixon, a fellow Californian, in 1960 but heaped measured praise on JFK for his and his administration’s fight against racism.
This was still at a time when the Democrats were still aligned with Old South racists. Robinson abandoned, publicly, the Republican Party after it elected Barry Goldwater over Nelson Rockefeller, telling the press on his way out of the GOP’s 1964 convention that he had "a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler's Germany." The Republican Party lost the African-American voting bloc in 1964, and Jackie Robinson’s words exemplify how it did so.
Jackie Robinson died from a heart attack and complications from diabetes at the age of 53 in Stamford, Conn.