(January 31, 1919 — October 24, 1972)
When he stepped onto Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson became the first African American in the 20th century to play baseball in the major leagues—breaking the “color line,” a segregation practice dating to the 19th century. Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed a contract with Robinson to play for the team on October 23, 1945. Robinson then spent a year with the Montreal Royals to sharpen his skills. Rickey, who called the move baseball's “great experiment,” chose Robinson because of his excellent athletic record and strength of character. The first player to “cross the color line” would have to be able to withstand intense public scrutiny and to avoid confrontation even when met with insults and hostility.
Robinson was a well-rounded athlete, having competed in college baseball, football, basketball and track at both Pasadena Junior College and the University of California at Los Angeles. He served in the Army during World War II—although he never saw combat action—and was active in the civil rights movement. Robinson was a professional player for the Kansas City Monarchs, an all-black team in the Negro American League, prior to being scouted by the Dodgers.
Not only was Robinson able to quell opposition to his presence on the field, but also he also quickly won the respect and enthusiasm of the fans. He finished his first season batting .297 and led the National League in stolen bases with 29, earning baseball's first Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, in 1949, he won the National League's Most Valuable Player Award, leading the league with a .342 batting average and 37 stolen bases.
Off the field, Robinson was the subject of everything from songs to a feature-length film about his life. He even starred as himself in the movie, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Released in 1950, it was one of the first films to portray a black man as an American hero.
In 1955, after getting close several times, Robinson finally played on a world-champion team when the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. He retired from baseball after the 1956 season with a lifetime batting average of .311 and the distinction of having stolen home an incredible 19 times. A legend even in his day, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.