Historians have observed that professional baseball is a microcosm of U.S. culture; in some cases magnifying society’s changes and in others acting as a driving force for dramatic shifts in the way people think, act and remember history. So it is only fitting that some of the most influential Black Americans played in the Negro Baseball Leagues and/or made their mark in Major League Baseball.
In honor of Black History Month – which was established to encourage Americans of all races to recall and celebrate the positive contributions to our nation made by people of African descent – we’ve assembled quotes from members of the 500 Home Run Club® on what Jackie Robinson meant to the sport of baseball as it has evolved over the years, as well as what Jackie meant to them personally and professionally.
Robinson Erases MLB Baseball Color Line
Baseball's color barrier was shattered on April 18, 1946 by Jackie Robinson, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey - with the support of the new baseball commissioner Albert "Happy" Chandler - signed the African American player Jackie Robinson in 1946. Although Mr. Rickey intended Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League, he made his first appearance with the Montreal Royals in the International League. After a single season with Montreal, where he endured epithets and death threats, he joined the parent club and helped propel the Dodgers to a National League pennant. Along the way he also earned National League Rookie Of The Year honors.
Robinson's success opened the floodgates for a steady stream of black players into organized baseball. He was soon joined in Brooklyn by Negro League stars Roy Campanella, Joe Black and Don Newcombe, and Larry Doby became the American League's first black star with the Cleveland Indians. By 1952 there were 150 black players in organized baseball, and the "cream of the crop" had been lured from Negro League rosters to the integrated minors and majors.
"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Robinson said when asked about his influence on baseball and his role as an innovator in the sport and American society. "The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game did much for me, and I did much for it."
According to Robinson’s Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese: "I don't know any other ball player would could have done what he (Jackie Robinson) did…. to be able to hit with everybody yelling at him. He had to block all that out, block out everything but this ball that is coming in at a hundred miles an hour. He's got a split second to make up his mind if it's in or out or down or coming at his head, a split second to swing. To do what he did, under the conditions that he saw day in and day out, has got to be the most tremendous thing I've ever seen in sports."
"What a decent human being,” Robinson said, speaking about Pee Wee Reese, who befriended him and supported his transition into the major leagues. “How much he helped me. But he refuses to take the credit."
As far as worrying about what most people thought of him during his early years with the Dodgers, Jackie said: “I am not concerned with being liked or disliked. I am concerned with being respected.”
Jackie Robinson got his fondest wish and more in the form of lasting respect, admiration from his peers and fans worldwide. In addition to shoving the door wide open for thousand so future black players (of African, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Venezuelan, Dominican heritage), Jackie Robinson showed that anyone with the god-given skills, tenacity, courage and longevity can play baseball at the highest level – in the Major League.
Ernie Banks Followed Jackie From Negro Leagues In 1948, at the age of 17, the young man who would go on to earn the beloved nickname “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks began his baseball career playing semipro baseball with a barnstorming black team for $15 a game. But that didn’t last for long, as "Cool Papa" Bell saw him and signed him to play for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, a team full of eventual major leaguers managed by Negro Leagues icon Buck O'Neil.
Banks, who never played minor league ball, jumping directly from to the Chicago Cubs, said he was greatly inspired by Jackie Robinson.
"Jackie Robinson impacted my life tremendously,” said Banks, who went on to hit 512 home runs and win two MVP awards in a Hall-of-Fame career, “So much so that I wanted to be like Jackie."
When he was breaking into the league with the Milwaukee Brewers, Hank Aaron found himself face-to-face with the man who had made it possible for him to pursue a career in the Major Leagues…Jackie Robinson. "I had just turned 20, and Jackie told me the only way to be successful at anything was to go out and do it. He said baseball was a game you played every day, not once a week."
In 1970, soon after collecting his 3,000th hit, Hank Aaron utilized his heightened national visibility as an opportunity to encourage Major League Baseball to provide African Americans with greater management and front office opportunities. When asked to comment on the progress that black players had made in the major leagues, he stated frankly: "I have to tell the truth, and when people ask me what progress Negroes have made in baseball, I tell them the Negro hasn't made any progress on the field or in the commissioner's office. I think we have a lot of Negroes capable of handling front-office jobs and…it's time that the major leagues and baseball in general just took hold of themselves and started hiring some of these capable people."
When asked about his memories of Jackie Robinson, Hammerin’ Hank said: “Jackie had the strength to suppress his instincts, to sacrifice his pride for his people's. It was an incredible act of selflessness that brought the races closer together than ever before and shaped the dreams of an entire generation,” he observed “I was 41 home runs short of Babe Ruth's career record when Jackie died, and I really felt that it was up to me to keep his dream alive. I was inspired to dedicate my home-run record to the same great cause to which Jackie dedicated his life. I'm still inspired by Jackie Robinson. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him.”
“Junior” Pays Tribute to Jackie Robinson
On April 4, 1997, Ken Griffey Jr. called MLB Commissioner Bud Selig with the idea of wearing Jackie Robinson's No. 42 on April 15 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in baseball.
"It’s just my way of giving that man his due respect," Griffey said of his one-day switch from a Seattle Mariner’s uniform No. 24 to No. 42 (Robinson’s uniform number with the Dodgers). "If it weren't for Jackie Robinson, I wouldn't be able to put on the uniform I'm wearing today," Griffey said. "He should be an inspiration not only to baseball players but to anyone who fights prejudice and hatred."
Selig liked Griffey's idea so much, he has encouraged other clubs to have a player wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.
"This is a wonderful gesture on Ken's part and a fitting tribute to the great Jackie Robinson and one, I believe, that all Clubs will eagerly endorse," Selig said in a statement released by Major League Baseball. "To make this happen, I gladly will temporarily suspend the official retirement of uniform No. 42 on that day. Jackie continues to be an inspiration to all of our players, and his impact will be felt for as long as our game is played. I thank Ken for finding another special way to mark Jackie Robinson Day."
Reggie Speaks His Mind
"After Jackie Robinson the most important black in baseball history is Reggie Jackson, I really mean that,” “Mr. October told LIFE Magazine in January of 1988. He went on to say that he believed that his success and popularity among the common fan, especially people of color, made him an important figure in contemporary culture. "I couldn't quit, because of all the kids, and the blacks, and the little people pulling for me. I represent both the underdog and the overdog in our society."
"I used to dream how good it would be to be Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams, now the only difference between me and those other great Yankees is my skin color."
Willie Mays Praised Jackie For Opening The Door
Dubbed the “Say Hey Kid” when he played semiprofessional baseball at the age of 16, Willie Mays joined the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro National League in 1948, playing only on Sunday during the school year. The National League New York Giants paid the Barons for his contract when he graduated from Fairfield Industrial High School in 1950. After two seasons in the minor leagues, Mays went to the Giants in 1951.
"Every time I look at my pocketbook, I see Jackie Robinson,” said “Say Hey” Willie, but in his 1988 book, entitled “Say Hey: The Autobiography of Willie Mays”, he candidly admitted that he could never truly identify with what Robinson went through in breaking baseball’s color barrier. "I always enjoyed playing ball, and it didn't matter to me whether I played with white kids or black. Over the years, a lot of organizations have asked me to be their spokesman, or have wanted me to make speeches about my experiences as a black athlete, or to talk to Congressmen about racial issues in sports. But see, I never recall trouble. We'd play football against the white kids…and we thought nothing of it, neither the blacks nor the whites. It was the grownups who got upset ... I never got into a fight that was caused by racism."
Frank Robinson Wished Jackie Could See Him Named First Black MLB Manager
When he was named manager of the Indians in October 1974, Robinson told the media, "If I had one wish in the world today, it would be that [the late] Jackie Robinson could be here to see this happen."
And that pretty much sums it up for all African American players in the Major Leagues.