The Life and Legacy of Jackie Robinson

Picture of Jackie Robinson holding a bat like he's ready to swing
Jackie Robinson, courtesy of Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

October is here, which means the World Series is just around the corner! And what does this have to do with blindness, you ask? Well, several Major League Baseball players have lost their sight during their careers or in retirement. One of baseball's most famous names, Jackie Robinson, developed diabetic retinopathy soon after he retired from the game. 

The Curator and Exhibitions Director of the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory, Nathan Stalvey, tells us a little bit about Jackie Robinson and his career:

Many people consider Jackie Robinson to be one of the most influential athletes that has ever lived.  On April 15, 1947, he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He was also a champion for racial equality off the field and worked hard to achieve this despite a lot of resistance.  His successes challenged the traditional basis of segregation and helped more minorities enter into professional sports across the country.  

Robinson was born in 1919 in Cairo, Georgia and was raised by his mother, who was a sharecropper.  He attended college at UCLA where he became the school’s first athlete to letter in football, baseball, basketball and track…all in the same year (1941).  In 1942, Robinson was drafted into the Army and eventually moved up in rank to become a Second Lieutenant.  On July 6, 1944, Robinson boarded an Army bus with an officer’s wife.  The driver instructed Robinson to go to the back of the bus, even though buses on the base were supposed to be de-segregated.   When Robinson refused, he was arrested by military police.  He confronted the investigating officer about racial questioning and was then transferred to another base, where he was court-martialed and accused of various offenses, including public drunkenness (even though Robinson never drank).  In the end, an all-white jury acquitted him of all charges.  He was later honorably discharged.

In 1946, Robinson played one season for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.  His skills got the attention of Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey selected Robinson  to sign with the Dodgers. 

Despite the slew of racial taunts he received by fans, opposing players and even players on his own team, Robinson was able to put together a phenomenal rookie season in which he hit .297 and led the league in stolen bases.  This helped him to win the Rookie of the Year award.  Robinson continued to post amazing numbers throughout his career. Before he retired, he had won the MVP award once, and helped lead the Dodgers to six World Series appearances, including their first title in 1955.  

The racial torment Robinson had to endure throughout his career slowly subsided over time.  Other African-American players began making their way into Major League Baseball in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hall of Famers Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays all entered the league soon after Robinson and have often credited Robinson for allowing them to get their own chance to play in the Major Leagues.

By 1956, Robinson began to suffer from numerous ailments related to diabetes, including diabetic retinopothy.  Though he did take insulin shots, medicine was not as advanced as it is today and his health continued to rapidly decline.  The next year, he retired from the game of baseball.  Today, his number, 42, is the only number retired by every team in Major League Baseball.  

Despite his deteriorating health and eventual blindness, Robinson continued to work hard for African-Americans until his death in 1972.  In 1964, he co-founded the Freedom National Bank, an African-American owned and operated bank in Harlem.  In 1970, he started the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which built housing for low-income families.  

Robinson’s life could be called a life of “firsts.” On top of breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier, here are a list of those firsts:

-The first African-American to win the Rookie of the Year Award
-The first African-American to win the MVP Award
-The first African-American inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame
-The first African-American to serve as a sports analyst on network television (ABC)
-The first African-American to serve as a vice-president of a major corporation (ChocK-Full-o-Nuts)

Robinson’s legacy is one that transcends the game of baseball. His accomplishments, despite all of his challenges, have served as an inspiration to many.


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