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Speak, Write, Act: How Jackie Robinson “tells it like it is”

 
 

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What was Jackie Robinson like as a person?

Jackie Robinson was a multifaceted person who was very involved in the world around him, in addition to his career as a Major League Baseball player. He was a natural leader and was kind to others. He also had a strong physical presence. Some of his distinctive character traits were integrity, determination, courage, and compassion, which he displayed in everything he did.

Jackie’s character was shaped largely by his mother, Mallie, who was the backbone of the Robinson family. She taught him from a young age that despite discrimination he might face because of his race, he deserved to be treated fairly and with respect. Jackie also adopted his mother’s staunch devotion to family and to the Methodist faith.

Jackie’s competitive nature was legendary. On the field, even as a young boy, he was fiercely committed to winning or at least performing to the best of his abilities in all that he did. As a leader, he brought out the best in his teammates, providing encouragement and a positive attitude. When sports made him a public figure as an adult, he understood that he carried enormous influence and used that position to stand up for what he believed in and help others, especially his fellow African Americans.

Jackie fought tirelessly for what he believed in, and in many areas of society. During and especially after his baseball career: he wrote books as well as newspaper articles and columns on various topics; hosted radio and television programs; delivered speeches across the country on important issues; urged a large corporation he worked for as a vice president to do positive things in communities that needed help; established businesses in poor communities; and participated in protest marches to pressure the government and corporations to treat all people fairly. Even with all of these activities, Jackie Robinson found time to be loving and devoted to his wife, Rachel Robinson, and to his three children, Jack, Jr., Sharon, and David Robinson.

Throughout his life, Robinson showed a keen willingness to learn new things. Working as a vice president of personnel at Chock full o’Nuts, a large coffee company that still exists today, Jackie took it upon himself to learn how to best motivate and support the company’s employees.

Later in his life, he decided to help establish a new bank in communities that had a shortage of banking services. As co-founder and chairman of Freedom National Bank in Harlem, Robinson had to learn about the banking system in the United States, a new area for him.

Another indication of Robinson’s willingness to learn and act on what he learned, he changed his opinions on important issues once he learned more about them. For example, having spoken against the opinion of another well-known African American, Paul Robeson, in 1949 at a hearing in the United States Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee (known as “HUAC”), Jackie regretted his criticism of Paul Robeson years later.

Go further! Learn even more about Jackie by watching Sharon Robinson’s Q&A video on the best advice her dad gave her to hear how Jackie discussed current events and the Civil Rights Movement with his family at the dinner table.

Why did Jackie Robinson want to break the color barrier in baseball?

Breaking the color line in baseball was not something Jackie set out to do. Prior to his first meeting with Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1945, Jackie did not believe he had an option to play in baseball’s major leagues because of long-established racism and segregation in the sport.

But when Branch Rickey offered him the opportunity to join the Dodgers organization, he felt a sense of responsibility for himself, his family, and African Americans across the country to play—and to play well. He later recalled, “I didn’t know how I would do it. Yet I knew that I must. I had to do it for so many reasons. For black youth, for my mother, for Rae [Rachel, his wife], for myself. [And] I had already begun to feel I had to do it for Branch Rickey.” (I Never Had it Made, 1972)

Robinson was motivated by the opportunity to challenge segregation head on after a lifetime of experiencing prejudice and second-class citizenship during his upbringing in Pasadena. He was also a fierce competitor who welcomed the opportunity to play at a high level. Branch Rickey’s offer was also appealing because of the opportunity to earn more money and bring home a consistent paycheck, which was not the case for him and the other players in the Negro Leagues.

Who else was involved in Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier?

There were several people who directly helped make it possible for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier. Sportswriter Wendell Smith, who worked for an African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, had been advocating for the integration of major league baseball years before Jackie joined the major leagues. On December 3, 1943, Smith and actor and activist Paul Robeson, along with other members of the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, made a case for integrating professional baseball to all the major league team owners. It was Smith who told Dodgers co-owner and manager Branch Rickey that Jackie was major-league ready and should be drafted by the Dodgers. Wendell Smith befriended Jackie and was Jackie’s steady companion during the early years of integrated baseball. Jackie said, “without [Wendell Smith] even knowing it, his recommendation was in the end partly responsible for my career.” (I Never Had it Made, 1972)

Also, Jackie always had the loving support of his wife, Rachel, so he was never entirely alone in what he was going through in baseball and in society at-large. She went to all of his home games at Ebbets Field, traveled with the team when she could, and made their home a loving safe haven from the stress that Jackie endured as a public figure in a racially segregated society.

Branch Rickey also made Jackie’s entry into baseball possible by selecting Robinson to be the first Black player in a major league organization. Rickey was impressed by Jackie’s character, his college background, his experience living and playing in racially integrated settings, and his courage and dignity, which Jackie had demonstrated publicly when he challenged the United States Army to treat African Americans fairly. Robinson came to refer to Branch Rickey as a “father figure,” and took into consideration Rickey’s guidance and advice on a variety of matters.

Of course, Jackie Robinson is the one who actually broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he made his Brooklyn Dodgers debut at first base against the Boston Braves. He is the one who endured the pressure of living in the spotlight, feeling the weight of representing his race on his shoulders. And he is the one who withstood the hateful, insulting, and sometimes physically aggressive treatment from players, coaches, umpires, and spectators. In many cases, it was lonely for Jackie, especially on the road as the only Black player on his team at the beginning of his career. Note that Jackie was not the only Black player in the major leagues for long though. By the summer of 1947, other team managers were already responding to Robinson’s success by bringing on Black players the same year, such as Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians (July 5, 1947) and Hank Thompson of the St. Louis Browns (July 19, 1947). Rickey brought on another Black player, Dan Bankhead, that year as well (August 26, 1947).

Whom did Jackie Robinson look up to?

Growing up, there were several key figures whom Jackie Robinson admired and who mentored him. One was his mother, Mallie, whose courage, strength, and tireless work to take care of her family was something Jackie greatly admired and respected. Reverend Karl Downs, the minister at his church during Jackie’s young adulthood, helped him to develop his spiritual identity, stay out of trouble, and find purpose by working with young people. Downs remained a close friend and advisor to Jackie until Downs’ untimely death in 1948.

As a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, an individual that Robinson looked up to was Branch Rickey, the architect of what they called “the noble experiment” of integrating baseball. Robinson often credited his success in baseball to Branch Rickey, whose plans and guidance Robinson followed strictly. In this Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1962, Robinson called him “my advisor and a wonderful friend, a man who I consider a father.”

Rickey wasn’t the only person Robinson looked up to. While Jackie disliked playing in the Negro Leagues, he respected his teammates and other Negro League stars. In 1948, Robinson wrote: “…I did meet some great ball players that year [1945, when he was playing with the Monarchs]. Two of them—Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson—would have starred in any league that ever was…If those two had only been given the chance I was to have, their names would have been somewhere near the top in the record books.” (Jackie Robinson: My Own Story, 1948)

How did people react to Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball?

Robinson’s first national debut was with the Montreal Royals (the Dodgers’ minor league farm team) in 1946, where he was a star on the team, leading the team to victory in the “Little World Series.” While he faced racist taunts when the played on the road in American cities like Baltimore, Syracuse, and Louisville, the people of Montreal loved Jackie.

When Jackie moved to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, for many Brooklynites, young and old and from many diverse backgrounds, he was a hero and they embraced Jackie and the Robinson family. On the team, some players, like Pee Wee Reese, were supportive, but others, like Eddie Stanky, did not think baseball should be integrated and were not happy about Robinson joining the team. But they all came to respect Jackie as a person and a teammate. Stanky even stood up against his hometown Philadelphia Phillies when they shouted insults at Robinson during a game in Philadelphia, which Jackie remembered as one of the moments he started to feel the team’s support. 

By the end of the season, Robinson was widely popular throughout the country, but racist threats and abuse against him never disappeared. One of the most recognizable threats against Robinson occurred in 1950, when the Dodgers received a death threat from a Ku Klux Klan-type group of individuals that called itself “The Travelers.” Off the field, for years Robinson and other Black players faced indignities like not being able to stay at the same hotels or be served at the same restaurants as their White teammates in some cities.

For many Americans, watching Jackie Robinson succeed with the Dodgers helped to change their ideas and beliefs about the system of segregation that governed so much of American life. (For example, look for the letter by Ernst Muller in the Resource Bank.) For so many African Americans, Robinson was a hero and Black fans attended games to support him in record numbers, both at major league ballparks and on barnstorming, or exhibition, tours throughout the South. Beyond sports, they also recognized that striking down segregation in baseball could be the beginning of ending segregation in other areas of everyday life, opening up new possibilities for equal rights. In this way, Robinson’s achievement provided a spark that helped to ignite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

How did Jackie Robinson handle racist abuse and did he ever want to fight back?

Throughout his life, Robinson had tremendous self-respect, carried himself with dignity, and took great offense when insulted with racial slurs or unjust treatment, not hesitating to stand up for himself through words and action. For example, when in the Army, when testifying about his reaction to a lower-ranking soldier calling him the n-word, he said, “If he ever called me that name again, I would break him in two.” (2nd Lt. Jack Robinson court martial testimony, July 7, 1944)

Because of his strong sense of pride and dignity, at the beginning of his career with the Dodgers organization, Robinson struggled with the limited ways he could respond to racist treatment and abuse. When he first met with Branch Rickey, they had made an agreement that, in order for their “experiment” to succeed, Jackie would not retaliate verbally or physically against any insults, injustices, and violent acts.

He may have had to “turn the other cheek” in the face of racism, but he also proved through his talent on the field that he not only deserved the equal opportunity to play, but that he was among the most talented players in the league. In 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie continued to play well, stealing twenty-nine bases in his first season and winning the first national Rookie of the Year award.

Jackie succeeded, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. At times, he had trouble eating and sleeping because of the pressure he was under. Other times, he and Rachel used their senses of humor as a defense, laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of racist observers. His home and family always provided a place of safety and loving support that helped him withstand the pressure and negativity he faced in public.

Sometimes he came close to losing his temper and, just like any person, Jackie had moments where he wanted to fight back or even give up. This was especially true for Jackie, since standing up for himself was a fundamental part of his character from a young age. It was difficult to withstand racist taunts and abuse without retaliating. One thing that helped him get through those moments was his awareness that his success was about more than just himself. He said, “Plenty of times, I wanted to haul off when somebody insulted me for the color of my skin, [but]…if I lost my chance, the Negro might lose his chance, too…The whole thing was bigger than me.” (Jack Roosevelt Robinson to Jean Evans, New York Post, September 20, 1947)

Beginning in 1950, once Robinson had established himself as a player, he and Rickey agreed he would no longer remain quiet in the face of aggressive or unfair treatment. Jackie started publicly speaking out and standing up for himself. He argued with umpires when he disagreed with calls, challenged fellow players with back talk when they harassed him, and didn’t “pull punches” in letting the press or team management know how he felt. For example, in 1947, St. Louis Cardinals player Enos Slaughter violently spiked Jackie in his leg, narrowly missing his Achilles tendon and severely injuring him. While Robinson couldn’t retaliate then, after 1950 when he was free to express himself, Robinson obstructed Slaughter as he slid into second base so hard that Slaughter lost three teeth. In a later interview with Larry King, Slaughter remembered Robinson remarking, “I don’t forget.”

As a result of his outspokenness and more confrontational style after 1950, Jackie was criticized by fans and in the media for being aggressive and out of line, even though White players who behaved comparably were not labeled the same way. For example, in 1954, when he accidentally threw his bat into the stands in Milwaukee in an act of frustration, he was booed and jeered aggressively at subsequent games. Dick Young of the Daily News had written positively about Jackie in his early years, but by the 1950s characterized Jackie as hypersensitive, which resulted in a shouting match between the two in the locker room in 1954.

Go further! Watch Sharon Robinson answer the question of “How did Jackie Robinson deal with being bullied?”

Did Jackie Robinson ever regret playing baseball?

There were many tough moments during Robinson’s professional baseball career when he struggled under enormous pressure. By the 1950s, as the physical toll of the sport weighed on his body, he sometimes thought about quitting baseball and looking for his next opportunity. But he did not express regret for his baseball career or his role in integrating the sport. During challenging times, he, often with the help of his wife Rachel, was always able to see that he was making sacrifices out of a deep commitment to equality for African Americans and a firm belief that a more fair and just America was possible. When he did leave baseball, it was on his own terms after he decided to accept a job in a large American corporation, Chock full o’Nuts, a coffee retailer.

Robinson’s baseball career opened new doors for him and for others, such as the many talented Negro League players who followed him in joining major league teams. Robinson’s baseball career also made him a nationally renowned public figure. This brought both scrutiny and criticism, but also devoted fans whom he deeply appreciated and a platform to advocate for the causes he cared about.

Go further! Watch Sharon Robinson’s video on whether Jackie Robinson ever got discouraged.

What jobs did Jackie Robinson do after baseball?

Jackie Robinson had several different jobs after baseball and even during his playing days. For example, beginning in the 1948 off-season, when he wasn’t playing exhibition games, Robinson worked as a youth sports coach in the Boys’ Work Department at the Harlem YMCA. He also took on several roles related to media and entertainment while he was on the Dodgers. He starred as himself in the feature film The Jackie Robinson Story in 1950 and he became the editor of the short-lived Our Sports magazine in 1953, which focused on African American representation in sports.

His first post-baseball career move was into the business world. In 1957, he became the first Black officer-level executive, as vice-president of Chock full o’Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain. In 1964, he co-founded the Freedom National Bank in Harlem, the largest African American owned bank in the United States at the time. By supporting Black individuals, families, and businesses, Freedom National Bank’s purpose was to combat racism that made it harder for African Americans to get credit, mortgages, and business loans from large, White-owned banks. Jackie also started businesses, including the Jackie Robinson Construction Company (1970), which built affordable housing in New York City.

In 1959, Robinson became a columnist for the New York Post and later the New York Amsterdam News, where he continued to write until 1968. He used his columns to express his views on a wide variety of topics and to influence how people felt about other people being treated unfairly. He also continued to break barriers in media as a radio show host and television broadcaster for major networks including NBC. (Look for the press packet for the Jackie Robinson Radio Show in the Resource Bank!)

In 1966, Robinson accepted the role of special assistant for community affairs for New York governor Nelson Rockefeller. After years of active political involvement for multiple candidates, Robinson was hired as an official advisor for Governor Rockefeller’s re-election campaign. In this role, he met with local communities across the state and provided policy guidance on issues that would positively impact African American communities.

How did Jackie Robinson contribute to the Civil Rights Movement?

As a participant in the Civil Rights Movement, Robinson was a fundraiser, public speaker, and protestor.  In 1957, he led a speaking tour across the country for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and chaired a committee that raised a record $1 million. Beginning in 1963, Jackie and Rachel hosted an annual fundraising jazz concert called Afternoon of Jazz at their home in Stamford, Connecticut, to benefit civil rights organizations like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council. (Look for a photo of the Robinson family at the first Afternoon of Jazz concert in the Resource Bank!)

He also gave speeches and attended events during landmark campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, like the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963, and protests in Saint Augustine, Florida in 1964. Robinson co-chaired the Youth March for Integrated Schools in 1958 and he and his family participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Through his newspaper columns for the New York Post and New York Amsterdam News, Jackie spoke out about a broad variety of topics including civil rights, education, and politics. (Look for examples of his columns in the Resource Bank!)

Jackie’s belief in equal rights also inspired his political activism. He was an outspoken political advisor and campaigner for candidates whom he believed were strongest on civil rights, including many Democrats and Republicans like Richard Nixon (1960), Nelson Rockefeller (1966), and Hubert Humphrey (1968). Robinson also supported voter registration efforts and spoke out before Congress to advocate for changes that he believed would benefit Black and other marginalized, minority communities and advance equality.

Collaboration was central to Jackie’s approach to activism. He worked with and was a leader in several organizations, including the NAACP, the National Council on Christians and Jews, and the National Urban League. Robinson sometimes disagreed with other leaders like Roy Wilkins, Executive Director of the NAACP, Dr. King, and Malcolm X. Still, he remained open to communicating across differences (Look for the “What I Think of Dr. Martin King” newspaper column in the Resource Bank), hearing other perspectives, and finding common ground and always expressed the utmost respect for those leaders and their great work and sacrifice.

Go further! Watch Sharon Robinson answer how her father’s baseball career helped to advance his lifelong activism for equality during the Civil Rights Movement.

How did Jackie Robinson impact the world of sports?

After Robinson’s successful debut, many talented players from the Negro Leagues were signed to major league teams, such as Satchel Paige, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron, to name a few. Outside of baseball, Robinson’s example helped to inspire and pave the way for others who would integrate their sports like golfer Charlie Sifford, and up-and-coming basketball stars like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all of whom considered Robinson a hero.

Robinson was among a group of Black athletes—men and women—who not only played at the highest level, but who demonstrated a commitment to social justice and combatting racism through their athletic talent and activism off the field, including Paul Robeson, Arthur Ashe, Althea Gibson, Curt Flood, Floyd Patterson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Archie Moore, Bill Russell, and Muhammad Ali.

Robinson also lent his support to other athlete activists. When Curt Flood risked his career and sued Major League Baseball to challenge the league’s and teams’ control over player contracts, Jackie (who years earlier took Flood to the Deep South to protest) testified on Flood’s behalf in solidarity with Flood and the players. In the late 1960s, when the Olympic Project for Human Rights proposed a boycott of the 1968 Olympics, which led to the iconic “black fist” salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Jackie supported the boycott, encouraging young people, athletes especially, to be vehicles for change.

Jackie Robinson also advocated consistently for more roles for African Americans coaches, managers, and executives in baseball. During Jackie’s last public appearance at the 1972 Baseball World Series, he said he would be “pleased and proud” to see more Black faces managing in baseball.

 

Didn’t see your question here? to submit your questions to the Jackie Robinson Museum.

Where to Learn More

Find books and websites and explore our resource guide to continue learning about Jackie Robinson.