500 HRC® Sluggers Remember Jackie Robinson
Written by Jim Rednour   
Sunday, 31 January 2010

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.

"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks (sporting his 500HRC hat!) joins club members Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron (and Bud Selig) to salute Robinson's widow Rachel at Jackie Robinson Day festivities.
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  baseball, 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 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 pennant. Along the way he also earned Rookie Of The Year honors.

Robinson's success opened the floodgates for a 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 block out everything but this ball that is coming in at 100 M.P.H. 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."

“I am not concerned with being liked or disliked. I am concerned with being respected,” Jackie said.  He 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 open for future black players (of African, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Venezuelan, Dominican heritage), Jackie showed that anyone with the god-given skills, tenacity, courage and longevity can play baseball at the highest level – in the Major League.
Hank Aaron

In 1970, soon after collecting his 3,000th hit, Henry Aaron utilized his heightened visibility as an chance to encourage MLB to provide African-Americans with greater management and front office opportunities.   When asked about his memories of 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 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. Hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him.”

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,” Willie said.

“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 in 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.  “I thank Ken for finding another special way to mark Jackie Robinson Day."

Ernie Banks Followed Jackie From Negro Leagues

“Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks began his baseball career at the age of 17 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 skipped the minors and jumped directly 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."

Frank Robinson Wished Jackie Could See Him Named First Black Manager in MLB

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.