Jackie Robinson opened MLB’s doors to people of color 74 years ago on April 15

Fred Jeter | 4/15/2021, 6 p.m.
If Jackie Robinson had done anything wrong in1947, it might have set back the movement for racial equality many years. …

If Jackie Robinson had done anything wrong in 1947, it might have set back the movement for racial equality many years.

Instead, he did everything right.

For his brave efforts in breaking the color line with style and dignity, every April 15 since 2004 has been honored throughout professional baseball as Jackie Robinson Day.

All players, managers and coaches will wear Robinson’s iconic No. 42, which was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997.

Some history:

Robinson was signed by Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey in August 1945 as the first Black player in a MLB organization.

He played the 1946 season at the Dodgers’ AAA farm club in Montreal before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 at age 28.

The Dodgers opened on April15, 1947, before a home crowd of 26,623, about 14,000 of whom were African-American.

Rickey chose Robinson above many other talented players not only for his physical talent but for his character. Robinson had been involved with integrated athletics as a four-sport star at UCLA and he had a military background.

There were skeptics for sure and others who wanted him to fail. Had he gotten into a fistfight with another player, become involved in an altercation with fans or media, failed to meet expectations on the field or been associated with any misconduct off field, the naysayers would have said, “I told you so.”

The jeers turned quickly to cheers at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, with the Dodgers beating the Boston Braves 4-3 in the opener. Away from home, however, there were numerous ugly incidents, mostly involving fans.

Robinson’s talent for “turning the other cheek” helped him sidestep the nastiness. Robinson, with the support of his wife Rachel whom he married in 1946, foiled the haters by winning National League Rookie of the Year and helping the Dodgers to the National League pennant. As a rookie, he had 175 hits, 12 homers, 31 doubles, five triples and 29 stolen bases.

Given an opening, many Black players followed. By 1952, there were 150 African-Americans playing in MLB organizations, which also ushered the Negro Leagues into the history books.

While Robinson played second base most of his career, he broke in as the Dodgers’ first baseman, usually hitting second in order.

If Robinson were to view pro baseball today, he might be surprised and even a bit disappointed at the makeup of current MLB rosters.

On opening day this season, only 7 percent of players were African-American.

Among young Black athletes, basketball and football have become the more popular activities. That wasn’t the case in the 1940s.

There is no shortage, however, of people of color suiting up at big league ballparks. About 28 percent of rosters are filled by Latinos from South America and the Caribbean.

So when Jackie Robinson swung open the door of opportunity in 1947, it wasn’t just African-Americans who entered. Athletes around much of the world celebrated the green light and stepped forward as well.

Breaking Barriers

Here are the first 10 Black athletes to play in Major League Baseball's modern era (post 1900):

  1. Jackie Robinson, Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947

  2. Larry Doby, Cleveland Indians, July 5, 1947

  3. Hank Thompson, St. Louis Browns, July 17, 1947

  4. William Brown, St. Louis Browns, July 19, 1947

  5. Dan Bankhead, Brooklyn Dodgers, August 26, 1947

  6. Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers, April 20, 1948

  7. Satchel Paige, Cleveland Indians, July 9, 1948

  8. Minnie Minoso, Cleveland Indians, April 19, 1949

  9. Don Newcomb, Brooklyn Dodgers, May 20, 1949

  10. Monte Irvin, New York Giants, July 8, 1949

Note: Willie Mays was the 17th overall Black player to reach the majors with the New York Giants on May 25, 1951.