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04/14/12 8:39 PM ET

Jackie did it his way ... with courage

Robinson started a national change that continues to this day

In the end, they could not strip Jackie Robinson of his dignity, and 65 years later, that's perhaps the most incredible part of his story. Lord knows they tried. Through the years, we've come to associate him with words like grace and courage, but the truth is, they don't begin to describe the hell that was Robinson's life.

We use those words because they're the best we can do. In truth, it's impossible to know or understand what he endured. He was spit on and cursed, routinely. Pitchers threw at his head, routinely. He was drilled in the legs and ribs for sport. Fans threatened him, often loudly. He was constantly confronted with people who despised him because of the color of his skin and nothing else.

Can you imagine standing there on the field smothered by the sounds of hate? How many times did he fear for his life? He had agreed not to respond to the insults or retaliate to the physical punishment. He had an aggressive, abrasive style on the field, a style that probably agitated people who already were prone to dislike him.

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Please, let's not sanitize Robinson's story. He indeed was a man of grace and dignity, but the truth is, he was treated like an animal, actually worse than an animal. He was a member of the Dodgers only on the field.

Some of his teammates treated him well, but he was never really one of them. While they stayed in fine hotels and ate great food, Jackie was forced to stay in hotels so hot and filthy that he'd sometimes soak the bed sheets in ice water to cool the room. He ate his meals in the backs of kitchens, often alone, at least until Branch Rickey added Roy Campanella in his second season and Don Newcombe in his third.

To get back to a part of town that accepted him wasn't easy, and Robinson sometimes waited an hour on street corners for a cabbie who would stop for a black man. He was proud and stubborn, and he knew people were counting on him. The editor of a black New York weekly wrote that Robinson "would be haunted by the expectations of his race. ... White America will judge the Negro race by everything he does. And Lord help him with his fellow Negroes if he should fail them."

Robinson loved baseball more than baseball loved him, and he wanted to show the world that a black man could succeed in a white man's league. Nothing has been the same for baseball -- or America -- since April 15, 1947. And on the 65th anniversary of Robinson's first game -- a game that drew just 25,600 at Ebbets Field, a moment that drew little mention in New York's newspapers -- Major League Baseball will again honor Robinson.

He always seemed to understand that his real impact would extend far beyond the baseball diamond, and one of the many things that made him special is that he saw his sport as a means to an end.

"Jackie basically started the civil rights movement," Newcombe said. "In those days, there was no civil rights movement. People like Martin Luther King were too young then."

Maybe that's why King said Robinson had a dramatic impact on the civil rights movement, because he forced people to confront the possibility of change.

"Back in the days when integration wasn't fashionable," King said, "he underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom."

Robinson paid an ugly price. Did you hear the one about the opposing catcher spitting on Robinson's shoes in the batter's box?

Robinson wasn't a patient or passive man by nature and wasn't inclined to look the other way on injustice either. During his Army days, he was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a city bus in Texas.

"I know you're a good ballplayer," Rickey told him. "What I don't know is whether you have the guts."

Robinson asked: "Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?"

Rickey shot back: "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."

Perhaps the real lesson of Robinson is about social responsibility. He was determined to leave the world better than he found it. After his playing career ended in 1956, he attended rallies, fired off angry telegrams and lent his name to causes. There was a 1957 letter to President Eisenhower.

"I read your statement in the papers advising patience," he wrote. "We are wondering to whom you are referring when you say we must be patient. It is easy for those who haven't felt the evils of a prejudicial society to urge it."

And there was a 1961 note to President Kennedy.

"I thank you for what you have done so far," he wrote, "but it is not how much has been done, but how much more there is to do?"

And a 1965 telegram to President Johnson:

"Important you take immediate action in Alabama. One more day of savage treatment by legalized hatchet men could lead to open warfare by aroused Negroes. America cannot afford this in 1965."

He died too young, at 53 in 1972, but because of him, America was pushed a little bit in the right direction. Today, baseball will take a moment to remember one of its proudest moments. The men who run the game will be pressed about racial progress and new programs and the like. Players will offer opinions. The issue will be out there.

Robinson surely would be pleased about that.

"A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives," he said.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.