The first name everyone thinks of when reflecting on the history of African-Americans in baseball is Jackie Robinson, and rightfully so. The second baseman was the first to break the color barrier when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He would go on to be the first black player in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he had the kind of career that would have guaranteed induction into the Hall regardless of his race.
Born in Georgia in 1919, Jackie Robinson showed a lot of promise as an athlete from a very young age. After a successful tenure earning letters in four sports at UCLA, Robinson played football until being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942. Robinson had to endure racist behavior almost immediately, eventually getting court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a military bus. Although he was acquitted, being court-martialed exempted him from being able to serve overseas, and he was discharged in 1944 after serving as a coach for athletics at Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky.
In 1945, after another brief tenure playing minor league football, Jackie Robinson signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. He only played 47 games for the Monarchs, but hit for a .387 AVG and made the 1945 Negro Leagues All-Star Game. After a tryout for the Boston Red Sox where he was treated terribly and humiliated, Robinson ended up finally signing a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, orchestrated by general manager and team president Branch Rickey. He played the season with the Montreal Royals of the Internatonal League. After a tumultuous tenure in the minor leagues, Jackie Robinson finally broke the color barrier on April 15th, 1947 when he played with the Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
Robinson endured unbelievable racism during his tenure in the MLB. Players from within his own team threatened to sit out, racial epithets were constantly thrown in his direction, and players on opposing teams went out of their way to injure Robinson in the field. Luckily, Robinson did manage to get some support from teammates like future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese, who famously said “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.”
Despite consistent hardship in the league, Jackie Robinson proved to be a fantastic player. He was elected to the National League All-Star team six times, won the Most Valuable Player Award and National League Batting Title in 1949, the first ever Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, led the league in stolen bases twice, led the Dodgers to a World Series win in 1955, and finished his ten seasons in the MLB with a career AVG of .311. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first ballot. Jackie Robinson is a historical figure that transcends the game of baseball, being an important force in the Civil Rights Movement and the history of racial progress throughout the world. Unfortunately, Robinson passed away in 1972 at only 52 years of age, but his legacy still touches the game. His number 42 is the only number to be retired throughout the entire MLB.