On Jackie Robinson’s 100th Birthday, 100 Photos of an Icon
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He was born 100 years ago in a red-clay corner of Georgia, though for many Americans, Jackie Robinson burst onto the stage fully formed in 1947, a 28-year-old rookie in Dodger flannels.
That’s the enduring image, the Robinson captured on film at Ebbets Field and fixed in the national imagination: the silent but dynamic hero, broad-shouldered and trim, shattering the color barrier as he ropes another liner, dances off third or hook-slides home in a cloud of dust.
That vision of Robinson — late to the majors, but still in his playing prime — is on display in this gallery of 100 photographs honoring the centennial of his birth on Jan. 31. Many of the selections come from the archives of The New York Times, rounded out with images from other sources, such as U.C.L.A. and Ebony magazine.
As these photos make clear, Robinson’s decade in major-league baseball was just one act in a remarkably rich and complex life — one of vision, fortitude, dignity and endurance — shaped by the currents and contours of American history even as it recast them.
There was also Jackie the boy, grandson of slaves, hauled cross-country as a toddler from a life of sharecropping to the promise of Pasadena by a determined single mother, a Great Migration pioneer.
And Jackie the amateur athlete, his college exploits chronicled by a booming black press. When The Pittsburgh Courier’s Randy Dixon wrote about the injustice of a segregated sport passing up a star in 1941 — “Exhibit A in So-Called Democracy, the Case of Jackie Robinson” — he didn’t even mean baseball. Robinson had just dazzled in an exhibition between college all-stars and the Chicago Bears, outshining a roster studded with N.F.L. first-round picks.
Back then, baseball was his fourth-best sport. When Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson faced a court-martial for standing his ground after a civilian driver ordered him to the back of a bus at Camp (now Fort) Hood, African-American papers like The Courier identified him as a “football and basketball star” — though he was also an N.C.A.A. champ in the long jump, a certain Olympian if not for the war.
When he joined the Kansas City Monarchs out of the Army, it was an unglamorous means to an end, enduring relentless bus rides for the $ 100 a week he could send to his mother and save for his own future, envisioning a life as a coach, teacher and athletic director.
And then he was the graying Jackie — on the far side of that fateful playing career — the first African-American enshrined in Cooperstown, using his baseball fame not to dabble in civil rights but to dig in full-time.
Always, and especially, there was Jackie the husband and father, proud, loving, grieving — honest about the joy and pain in his private life, with his family sharing everything that came with being Jackie Robinson in a flawed nation.
As his friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — just 15 when Robinson was court-martialed — would write, “back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”
At just 53, Robinson succumbed to diabetes and heart disease in 1972. Though he has been gone now nearly as long as he lived, he packed so much into his half-century that his legacy continues to resonate, his foundation helping thousands of students and putting the finishing touches on a museum in Tribeca.
These are the images of a ballplayer, a change agent, a human being and humanitarian — of America, in progress.
By Claire Smith
I did not personally feel the tectonic shift that took place on April 15, 1947, when Robinson made his Dodgers debut. Alas, I did not see Robinson’s first game, nor even his last, a decade later. I came of age years after he played his final game for Brooklyn.
But I wish I could say, with a straight face, that I actually heard Robinson’s name while still in the womb. He was, in fact, still on the Dodgers then. And yes, my mother was that big a fan of Robinson and the Dodgers and surely was urging him on out loud while she was pregnant with me. Indeed, tales of the lengths to which she and other family members went in order to listen to Dodgers games on the radio were among my favorite bedtime stories as a child.
Click here to read more from Claire Smith, a former Times columnist who was the first woman in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
By George Vecsey
He upgraded the game, and he upgraded my Brooklyn Dodgers, and he upgraded life in America in his 10 years in the major leagues and in his short but active career out in the Real World, pushing for opportunities for black people in all businesses.
He raised the consciousness of Americans, whether they wanted it or not, and that is good reason to honor him on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Click here to read more from George Vecsey’s look at Robinson’s legacy.