04/13/07 10:00 AM ET
1947: A time for change
Robinson's debut significant in American history
People had settled into their routines since World War II ended more than a year earlier. With no one to fight abroad, a baby boom, the largest in the country's history, was just under way. Billy Crystal (nee Israel William Krisstalsterne) was a month old and making them smile; Elton John (Reginald Kenneth Dwight) was three weeks old and needing big baby glasses; David Letterman was three days old and hosting guests; and Lew Alcindor was only hours away from the arena of human life and an eventual NBA all-time scoring record as the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Hillary Rodham, later to become a Clinton and a First Lady and a New York senator and then a top presidential candidate, was conceived about three weeks earlier: the other national pastime in the home-happy days of 1947. There were 14,000 television sets with more to come, and the first successful American children's TV series, "Movies for Small Fry," had just debuted the previous month on the DuMont Network.
It was a Tuesday, and not just any Tuesday. April 15 was Opening Day, and Opening Day in New York was just about as good as it gets. There were three teams, and two of them were home that day. The New York Giants were at the Phillies, but the Yankees were home in the Bronx against the Philadelphia A's and the Brooklyn Dodgers were home to open against the Boston Braves at old Ebbets Field.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was in the Dodgers lineup, playing first base.
Thus began a new chapter in Major League Baseball, the start of another boom of sorts -- the first time an African American had been allowed to play in the grand old game. There were more than 26,000 fans at Ebbets Field that day, black and white alike. The meaning is known now to all, but it is also clearer in hindsight that the long-held textbook perception of America as an unprecedented place of contentment after the German and Japanese surrenders was not entirely true. Another battle was just beginning in '47, a movement for equal rights that would shake a society to its core.
Today, as Don Imus faces prominent consequences for uttering a racially insensitive remark, a country is now officially tired of hearing apologies whenever that sort of thing happens. It's a big issue. On April 15, 1947, the "n" word was not uncommon in the presence of ultimate greatness. It was a constant, as were death threats and less subtle provocations. Jackie Robinson even had to endure the sight of Phillies personnel in their dugout pointing a bat in his direction and making shotgun noises.
"You can hate a man for many reasons," Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese said, famously coming to the defense of his longtime double-play partner after the abuse intensified. "Color is not one of them."
"I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me," Robinson said. "All I ask is that you respect me as a human being."
Anne Frank never lived long enough to see April 15, 1947. In that year, her diary was published for the first time. It was the posthumous words of a Jewish girl who had been wiped off the face of the earth by Nazis during the war.
At about that same time as that diary was published, as the cherry trees and dogwoods blossomed over in Central Park along with a new season, an immigrant named Elia Kazan finished directing a movie in New York called "Gentleman's Agreement." It would premiere in Manhattan that fall, and it would win him an Oscar a year later. It was about a journalist who passed himself off as a Jew to write an article about Semitism in America, and about how otherwise good people could overcome racial hatred. Kazan, a blacklisted target of McCarthyism efforts to find communists, co-founded the famous Actors Studio in New York during that time, giving a starting place for such future actors as Robert DeNiro, James Dean, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Norman Mailer and many more legends of stage and screen.
And still more babies were being born. In 1947 came Nolan Ryan, Farrah Fawcett, Mike Krzyzewski, Rob Reiner, Glenn Close, Thurman Munson, O.J. Simpson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Clancy, Salman Rushdie, Pete Maravich, Dave Barry, Carlos Santana, Stephen King, Meat Loaf, Sammy Hagar, Kevin Kline, Richard Dreyfuss, Carlton Fisk, Ted Danson. Add David Bowie to the list, born just a few months before Jackie stepped onto the field, and how appropriate that Bowie would go on to sing about "Fame" and "Young Americans" when you think about April 15, 1947.
TV was on the verge of changing everything, bringing a new capability to mass-broadcast, a message about society that you could actually see. Oh, to have had Jackie's debut on a live national TV broadcast. MLB.TV wasn't a glint in the eye of technology back then. The boob tube just wasn't ready yet, even though he was. On Sept. 30 of that year, the opening game of the World Series brought in an estimated 3.9 million viewers, becoming the first mass audience in the history of the TV medium. President Harry S. Truman delivered the first-ever telecast of a presidential address from the White House that October 5. "Meet the Press" had its first network telecast on NBC on Nov. 20, and on Dec. 27, "Puppet Television Theater," later called "Howdy Doody," made its debut on NBC. The world was quieter in 1947 and it was changing fast.
But at the time, no one could have known how it was really going to change. It took a courageous and fabulously talented man from the South, along with the initiative of the legendary and visionary Branch Rickey, to turn April 15 into a reality. It took so many other African American players to pioneer the cause right behind Jackie.
A new boom was under way. Born on the same day Jackie first took the field was an actress named Lois Chiles, who would be known as Dr. Holly Goodhead in the 1979 James Bond film "Moonraker." Also born in 1947 were: Warren Zevon, Dan Quayle, Darrell Waltrip, Styx singer Dennis DeYoung, Emmylou Harris, James Woods, Iggy Pop, John Laroquette, Tom Daschle, the SAAB and Arlo Guthrie. Remember him? He sang about social injustice. Underneath the happy contentment of postwar American on April 15, 1947, you could still find a lot of that.
But where there was Jackie Robinson, there was the birth of a new day in baseball and beyond.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.