Robinson’s athletic career started when he was in high school. Recognizing his athletic talent and passion, his brothers encouraged him to pursue sports. He played on the varsity team in several sports and lettered in football, basketball, track, and baseball. He continued with all four of these sports while he attended Pasadena Junior College. He was elected to the All-Southland Junior College Team for baseball in 1938 and was also named the region’s Most Valuable Player. During his time at PJC, he had a few run-ins with police officers he believed were being racist, and was suspended for two years. This combative attitude toward racism is something that reappeared several times later in his life. Towards the end of his time at PJC, his brother Frank was killed in a motorcycle crash, and he moved closer to Frank’s family and decided to further pursue his athletic career at nearby University of California, Los Angeles.
At UCLA, Robinson became the first athlete in the school’s history to receive a varsity letter in four sports – football, basketball, track, and baseball once again. In 1939, he was one of only four black football players on the UCLA Bruins team, and out of all the sports he played, baseball was his “worst.” He left UCLA before he graduated, taking a job as the assistant athletic director to the government’s National Youth Administration. Robinson began to play semi-professional football for the Honolulu Bears in 1941 when NYA operations ceased. Following that, he became a running back for the Los Angeles Bulldogs until the United States entered World War II.
While serving in the military, Robinson once again was faced with racial discrimination and was arrested for his opposition. Due to his court proceedings for his insubordination charges, Robinson was never deployed overseas and therefore never participated in combat. He served as an army athletics coach in Kentucky until he was honorably discharged in 1944. He met a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League while in Kentucky who encouraged Robinson to write a letter to the Monarchs requesting a tryout. He soon after did.
For a brief period after he was discharged, Robinson returned to the Los Angeles Bulldogs and was then offered a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. While Robinson was working at Sam Huston College, he received a formal invitation to play for the Monarchs at a salary of $400 a month, which is now equivalent to a little over $5,000 a month. Robinson played 47 games as a shortstop for the Monarchs, but disliked his experience. The structured playing environment he was used to in college was very different from the disorganization present in the NAL. Robinson also disliked their approval of gambling and the extensive traveling required of him, keeping him from his future wife, Rachel Isam.
During the season, Robinson pursued major league interests and participated in a tryout for African American players for the Boston Red Sox. It turned out this was just a ploy to please a powerful desegregationist Boston city councilman. Other teams, such as the Brooklyn Dodgers, were more interested in signing black players. The general manager of the Dodgers offered Robinson a spot on their International League farm club, the Montreal Royals. In 1945, Robinson signed on with the Royals and became the first black baseball player in the International League since the 1880s.
Though he faced much more racial discrimination during his training and play time with the Royals, Robinson lead the International League with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage. He was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player. Because of his successful season, he was promoted to the Dodgers the next year and began his major league career. Robinson’s place on the Dodgers roster made him the first player to openly break the major league baseball color barrier since 1880. Black fans began to abandon the negro league teams to see Robinson and the Dodgers when they were in town.
His fans and mostly positive reception did not break racial tension, and many of his teammates threatened to sit out if Robinson played. Dodgers manager Leo Durocher back lashed on critical members of the team by telling them he believed Robinson could make them all rich, and if they didn’t need the money, he would see that they were all traded. Robinson received more discrimination from other teams and fans, but was still supported by many, including League President Ford Frick, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Jewish baseball player Hank Greenberg and Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese. A statue was even made depicting a famous gesture between Robinson and Reese in which Reese put his arm around Robinson after receiving boos from the crowd.
Once again, prejudice did not stop Robinson and he hit 12 home runs, led the league in stolen bases, and helped the Dodgers win a National League pennant in his first year. For his amazing feats, he was named Rookie of the Year. He became the highest-paid player in Dodgers history and opened the door for many future African American players. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series against the New York Yankees. He was later traded to the New York Giants, and retired soon after in 1957 with a remarkable career batting average of .311.
Throughout the rest of his life, Robinson was an activist for social change and an anti-drug crusader after losing his son, who struggled with drug problems, in an automobile accident. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and 10 years later on October 24, 1972, he died of a heart attack in Stamford, Connecticut. His uniform number, 42, was universally retired from baseball in 1997. He was the first pro athlete in any sport to be honored in this way. The day of his induction into the major leagues, April 15, is also known as “Jackie Robinson Day,” and every MLB player on every team wears the number 42 on this day.