April 15, 2022, marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball.
As one of the first and most visible institutions to accept African Americans on relative terms of equality, baseball became viewed as a model for the nation—providing a blueprint for future widespread integration. In this collection story, we highlight two important objects from the inaugural, impactful 1947 baseball season when Jackie Robinson changed the trajectory of the game: a pinback button and a Time magazine cover featuring Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson’s (1919–1972) entrance into Major League Baseball (MLB) was monumental. Sam Lacy, a sports reporter for the Chicago Defender wrote that by himself, Robinson “represents a weapon far more potent than the combined forces of all our liberal legislation.” The implication of Lacy’s claim is that Jackie Robinson had the hopes, aspirations, and ambitions of thirteen million Black Americans on his shoulders. In essence, Robinson was viewed as if he was a “one-man civil rights movement.”
When Robinson played, thousands of African Americans came to the stadium to support him and to see him play. The Dodgers set attendance records in every National League city, except for Cincinnati. The Philadelphia Afro-American reported that African Americans from as far away as Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other cities along the eastern seaboard requested tickets for the first Dodgers-Phillies series in Philadelphia during the 1947 season. Later that year, a “Jackie Robinson Special” train ran from Norfolk, Virginia to Cincinnati, Ohio stopping to pick up African American fans willing to travel to see Robinson play in the Dodgers-Reds series.
Mike Royko, a white sports columnist, attended Robinson’s first game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. A quarter century later, Royko described the scene:
In 1947, few blacks were seen in downtown Chicago, much less up on the North side at a Cubs game. That day they came by the thousands, pouring off the north-bound ELS [elevated passenger train] and out of their cars. They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes—suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats— The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. [When Robinson was at bat, African Americans] applauded long, rolling applause. A tall middle-aged man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.Mike RoykoChicago Newspaper Columnist
Fans were not limited to using their voices and hands. For all those fans that wanted to proudly proclaim their support for him in Brooklyn, the Dodgers handed out pins, which could be clipped onto their front lapels. “I’m Rooting for Jackie Robinson,” was not subtle. Rather, it allowed fans to be overtly and visibly committed to the notion that African Americans deserved to go as far as their talent and hard work could take them. The ribbons’ colors—red, white and blue—heightened the symbolism of the pinback button, because it reinforced the notion that African Americans deserved the right to participate in the post-World War II prosperity and equal access to the American Dream.
With the support of millions of Americans, Robinson excelled on the field in 1947. He batted .297, won the Rookie of the Year award, and helped the Dodgers reach the World Series. Many African Americans thought that Robinson’s success proved that if given a fair chance, African Americans would be productive, responsible, and exhibit a strong work ethic.
The integration of baseball was the most publicly discussed development in American race relations between the end of World War II in 1945 and the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Yet, it is still hard to quantify the impact of Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments upon African Americans. Perhaps, former all-time home run champion and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron best captured the sentiments of Black America when he said that Jackie Robinson “gave us our dreams.”
So great was his effect that it is almost beyond measure. Peter Goldenbock, 1998
Towards the end of his first season, the highly influential Time magazine placed Robinson on the cover of its September 22 edition. At a time when it was rare to see African Americans on the covers of magazines, the smiling image of Robinson in his baseball uniform surrounded by baseballs suggests that Robinson was looking back on the season while acknowledging the tremendous advances that had taken place.
The idea that Robinson’s success supported the post-war notion that America was moving toward a social order where African Americans would be fully accepted in the United States was strengthened when one poll labeled Robinson the second most popular man in the United States behind only singer and movie star Bing Crosby, who at the time was considered one of America’s greatest entertainers. The idea that an African American could be one of the most beloved figures in the country held important symbolic meaning.
Even as we celebrate and commemorate Robinson’s inaugural season, it is important to remember that it was also a season fraught with challenges. For example, Major League teams voted 15-1—the Brooklyn Dodgers were the lone dissenting vote—to keep Robinson out of the majors, even after he had signed with the Dodgers. Owners wanted the league’s new commissioner, Albert “Happy” Chandler, to void Robinson’s contract. Chandler refused.
Throughout the first season, the antagonism towards Robinson was immediate and often persistent. Perhaps, one of the first and most important instances of pushback came from his Southern-born teammate, Dixie Walker, who unsuccessfully tried to persuade other Dodgers players to sign a petition to have Robinson removed from the team roster. From the stands, fans hurled racial slurs. From opposing dugouts, Robinson often heard worse. When he came to bat, black cats were thrown onto the field. While on the road, he was often denied equal accommodations. Opposing players purposely slid into second base with spikes high, slamming into Robinson’s shins and drawing blood. Undeterred, Robinson and his wife, Rachel, refused to let death threats hinder them.
At the end of his distinguished hall of fame career, Robinson had played ten seasons. His on-the field accomplishments were stellar: Rookie of the Year, National League Most Valuable Player, six-time All-Star, .311 career batting average, World Series champion, and six World Series appearances. His on the field accomplishments earned him a place in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. However, it was his incredible pioneering efforts that led baseball to take the unprecedented step of retiring number “42” throughout Major League Baseball. No one will ever be assigned number “42” for any team, again. He is the only player in major professional sports in the United States to receive such an honor.
Written by Damion Thomas, Museum Curator of Sports, and Bremante Bryant, Curatorial Assistant
Published on April 1, 2022