On April 10, 1947, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey announced he had purchased the contract of Jackie Robinson, setting the stage for Robinson to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
Jackie Robinson Breaks Baseball's Color Barrier
For over 50 years, beginning in 1890, owners in the top professional baseball leagues had a “gentleman’s agreement” to exclude black players from the field. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, motivated both by the ideal of racial equality and the desire to win ballgames, wanted to break this agreement and add a black player to his team.
In what he called his “great experiment,” Rickey sought a black ballplayer with great talent and personal character. “I wanted a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load,” he explained in a 1956 speech.
He found the perfect man in Jackie Robinson, a former four-sport star at UCLA who played the 1945 season with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Robinson had a history of challenging racism; as a U.S. Army lieutenant, he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the segregated back seats on a military bus.
Robinson played 1946 with the Montreal Royals of the International League, breaking the professional baseball color barrier. “This in a way is another Emancipation Day for the Negro race,” Baz O'Meara of The Montreal Daily Star wrote.
The following spring, on April 10, 1947, his contract was purchased by the Dodgers. “Jackie Robinson, 28-year-old infielder, today became the first Negro to achieve major-league baseball status in modern times,” wrote The New York Times.
He made his major league debut on April 15, playing first base for the Dodgers. Throughout the season he faced racial abuse from players and fans, but he followed Rickey’s orders to turn the other cheek.
“Jackie Robinson had to be bigger than life,” writes Hall of Famer Hank Aaron in Time. “He had to be bigger than the Brooklyn teammates who got up a petition to keep him off the ball club, bigger than the pitchers who threw at him or the base runners who dug their spikes into his shin, bigger than the bench jockeys who hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes, bigger than the so-called fans who mocked him with mops on their heads and wrote him death threats.”
PBS presents a lesson plan on Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.
Biographies: Robinson and Rickey
Robinson played second base with the Dodgers for 10 years, winning a National League MVP Award and helping the Dodgers to the 1955 World Series. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.
Read the full findingDulcinea profile of Jackie Robinson.
Rickey revolutionized the way a baseball front office operated during his more than 40 years as a major league manager and executive. In addition to being the driving force behind breaking the color barrier, Rickey also created the modern farm system, established the first spring training facility and employed statisticians to analyze players.
Read the full findingDulcinea profile of Branch Rickey.
Background: The History of the Color Barrier in Baseball
Sources in this Story
- Library of Congress: Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” banquet
- Sports Illustrated: Beyond The Point Of No Return
- The New York Times: Of Skill and Courage
- Time: Jackie Robinson
- Negro League Baseball: Negro League History 101
- Society for American Baseball Research: Baseball Biography Project: Jimmy Claxton
- BNET (Ebony): Where are the African-American baseball players? The numbers continue to decline
- CNNMoney: Green behind decline of blacks in baseball
Robinson was not the first black player to play alongside white professionals. In the 1880s, several black players competed in prominent leagues throughout the country. But by 1890, an informal “gentleman’s agreement” among team owners and managers had forced black players out of white professional leagues, and into “outlaw” leagues and segregated Negro leagues.
In 1916, Jimmy Claxton would briefly break the color barrier. Claiming to be a Native American, Claxton signed with the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. He pitched in just two games before team officials discovered his black ancestry and promptly released him.
Related Topic: Declining Numbers of Black Players Today
Robinson cleared the way for other black players in the majors, including Larry Doby, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. However, baseball today has seen declining numbers of African-American players.
Analysts cite both cultural and economic factors for the decline in numbers, including the game's perceived lack of cultural appeal and the scarcity of playing fields in inner cities. Some black players also feel that there is lingering racial prejudice in the minor and major leagues.
CNNMoney’s Chris Isidore believes that the economics of MLB’s draft and minor league systems put blacks at a disadvantage compared to white and Caribbean players. “The real reasons behind the decline have more to do with money—the economics of scouting and player development, as well as socioeconomic issues in the U.S.,” he writes.