The most significant moment in Major League Baseball history took place on April 15, 1947 when Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut and forever broke the baseball color barrier.
It is a moment that still resonates throughout baseball today, as every player, coach and fan continues to honor the legacy of the man who made advancements possible for many within the game.
"Life is not a spectator sport. If you're going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you're wasting your life."
- Jackie Robinson
Born as Jack Roosevelt Robinson on January 31, 1919, Jackie Robinson's life started from humble beginnings in Cairo, Georgia, where he was the youngest of five children. He grew to be a phenomenal athlete in both high school and college, having played baseball, football, basketball and track. While attending UCLA, he became the university's first student to win varsity letters in all four sports and was one of only a handful of African American athletes on each team. It was also at UCLA that he met his future wife, Rachel.
Before playing baseball professionally, Robinson's first major stance against injustice occurred in 1944 while he was serving in the U.S. Army. Refusing an order by an Army bus driver to move to the back of the bus, he was arrested and court-martialed, but was later cleared of all charges and received an honorable discharge.
In 1945, Robinson began his baseball career in the Negro Leagues after accepting an offer from the Kansas City Monarchs. During his time there, he played with and against many Baseball Hall of Famers such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella and Buck Leonard, as well as Philadelphia Stars legend Gene Benson. His abilities that year earned him an appearance in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game. Eventually Robinson had a growing interest in pursuing a possible career in the Major Leagues, while around the same time Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey began to scout the Negro Leagues for potential talent to add to the Dodgers' roster. With the added goal of ending the color barrier that existed in the Majors, Rickey recruited Robinson in what would become known as "The Noble Experiment."
Under the condition that he would choose to not fight back when confronted with racism, Robinson started in the Dodgers' farm system in 1946, where he later excelled despite facing some hostility. This led to his promotion to the Dodgers the following year in 1947, during which he made his Major League debut on April 15 and effectively ended the baseball color barrier.
Amidst resentment and harassment from opposing teams, fans and even some of his own teammates, Robinson persevered in his first year to hit 12 home runs and help the Dodgers win the National League pennant, earning him Rookie of the Year honors. He remained determined to showcase his talent as a ballplayer while at the same time enduring the abuse that came his way. In addition to support from Rickey, he received encouragement from National League President Ford Frick, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, players from the Negro Leagues, and most famously his teammates that stood behind him, including team captain Pee Wee Reese. His success on the field led him to a stellar 1949 season, during which he batted .342, led the league in stolen bases and earned the National League Most Valuable Player Award.
Robinson's career accomplishments went on to include six Major League All-Star appearances and he also helped lead the Dodgers to five more National League pennants and a World Series Championship in 1955. His achievements opened the door for many African American players including his former Monarchs teammate Satchel Paige and other greats such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. After his retirement from baseball in 1957 and election into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his accomplishments continued off the field as he later became the first African American MLB television analyst, as well as the first African American vice president of a major American corporation. He also served on the board of the NAACP and helped found the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned commercial bank. Just as he had persevered in his first year in the Majors, Robinson continued to persevere towards the cause for civil rights and greater advancements for African Americans in baseball and in life, up until his passing on October 24, 1972.
Jackie Robinson's legacy endures today. Following Robinson's passing, his wife, Rachel, established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships, skills and opportunities to disadvantaged students of color to ensure that they succeed in college and develop their potential to lead. Jackie Robinson's jersey No. 42 was retired by every team in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1997 in memory of his debut and recognition of his impact on the game. And on April 15, 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was initiated, during which teams pay tribute to his accomplishments both on and off the field and players across the Majors all wear No. 42 jerseys.
Initiated in 2004, on April 15 players across Major League Baseball proudly wear No. 42 jerseys in honor of the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut and breaking of the baseball color barrier.
Each year the Phillies take part in the tribute with a special pregame Salute at Citizens Bank Park, during which recipients of the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholarship are acknowledged for sharing the same integrity and leadership qualities as Robinson had during his Major League career. Members of the Tuskegee Airmen serve as honor guard on the field, as former players from the Philadelphia Stars are recognized for their prominence in the Negro League era and in Philadelphia's baseball tradition.
Established in 1997 as Major League Baseball's cornerstone educational program, Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life was developed by Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson.
Using a baseball-themed curriculum, the program emphasizes the values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson: Determination, Commitment, Persistence, Integrity, Justice, Courage, Teamwork, Citizenship, and Excellence. It also provides an opportunity for students from all backgrounds in grades 4 through 9 to submit an essay about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives, and how they used the values exemplified by Jackie Robinson to deal with those obstacles.
Before and during the time of Jackie Robinson's playing career, the Philadelphia Stars were part of Philadelphia's baseball tradition and played in the Negro Baseball League. Founded in 1933 by Ed Bolden, the Stars played in the Negro National League from 1934 until 1948, and the Negro American League from 1949 to 1952. Their games took place at 44th and Parkside Ballpark in Fairmount Park, and over the years the team featured such great ballplayers as Gene Benson, Jud Wilson, Biz Mackey, Slim Jones, Bill Cash, Wilmer Harris, Harold Gould, Stanley Glenn and Mahlon Duckett. One of Stars' great achievements came in 1934, when they defeated the Chicago American Giants in an exciting playoff series to win the Negro National League Championship.
Many of the Philadelphia Stars players had played with and against Jackie Robinson. Gene Benson, who played in the 1945 Negro League All-Star Game with Robinson, also roomed with him during the winter of 1945 as part of a black All-Star team in Venezuela. Robinson confessed his doubts to Benson over his ability to be promoted to the Dodgers, to which Benson replied that if he could hit pitching in the Negro Leagues, he could also hit pitching in the Major Leagues.
Mahlon Duckett, who played against Jackie Robinson in the Negro Leagues, remembers the legacy that Robinson created.
Duckett: "Everybody knew Jackie was a great football talent. When I first played against him in a game with the Kansas City Monarchs, I saw the great baseball player he was destined to become. All the Negro Leagues players were very excited when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie. Because of his outstanding playing ability and character, doors opened for other African Americans to play in the Major Leagues."
Much like that of Jackie Robinson, the legacy of the Philadelphia Stars endures today. Former Stars players Harold Gould, Bill Cash, Wilmer Harris, Mahlon Duckett and Stanley Glenn have been honored each year during the Jackie Robinson Salute on Jackie Robinson Day, and on May 14, 2011 the Phillies wore commemorative Philadelphia Stars jerseys as they played the Atlanta Braves during Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Weekend. At the former site of 44th and Parkside Ballpark is the Philadelphia Stars Negro League Memorial Park, which features a Negro Leagues Memorial Statue, a Philadelphia Stars mural, and plaques showcasing the history of the Stars players.