Opinion | Remember Jackie Robinson for his life outside of baseball


Image via Bob Sandberg, Wikimedia Commons

Jackie Robinson swings a bat in a Dodgers uniform in 1954.

By Grant Van Robays, Senior Staff Columnist

Jackie Robinson took the field as the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers on Apr. 15, 1947. On this historic day, Robinson became the first Black player to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. Every Apr. 15, MLB celebrates Robinson’s breaking racial barriers with “Jackie Robinson Day.” Tomorrow, everyone across the big leagues will don Robinson’s signature number, 42, in recognition of his greatness. 

Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball is impossible to understate. Robinson proved that the color of one’s skin doesn’t affect their ability to play baseball. His prowess on the diamond and strength to endure blatant racism and threats of violence paved the way for integrating America’s national pastime. 

Perhaps no one in baseball is as revered as Robinson. His 42 is the only number retired across the league, after all. Despite this reverence on the field, Robinson’s impact off the field is often forgotten. 

Jackie Robinson was more than a baseball player. He was more than exclusively a Black baseball player. Jackie Robinson was an other-worldly athlete, veteran, entrepreneur and civil rights activist who never sacrificed his principles of justice and equality for all races. It’s time the country recognizes Robinson’s impact off the diamond and show him the respect he deserves. 

Before Robinson was a Hall of Fame baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was one of the best all-around athletes in the country. Robinson lettered in football, track, basketball and baseball at UCLA, staking his claim as possibly the best Bruin athlete of all time. He would’ve been an Olympian in track if not for World War II. 

Robinson was drafted into the army in 1942 and joined the “Double V” campaign. The Pittsburgh Courier, then the country’s largest Black newspaper, started this campaign to promote victory over tyranny and oppression for victims of war abroad and for African Americans at home. Robinson supported the campaign as a young recruit stationed in a segregated unit in Kansas, where he earned the rank of an officer — a rarity for African American servicemen at that time. 

Robinson’s officer status did not free him from racial discrimination. In 1944, when riding in the front of a bus to Fort Hood, the bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back. Robinson’s refusal led to an argument with the driver. Following this “incident,” the military court-martialed Robinson on trumped-up charges of disturbing the peace and insubordination. After winning his case, Robinson earned an honorable discharge and ended his military service. However, his lifetime of defending himself and his race from oppression was only beginning. 

In his early years with the Dodgers, Robinson let his play do the talking. His excellence on the field garnered him a Rookie of the Year award and multiple all-star selections.

In 1949, Robinson appeared in front of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee wanted his testimony on the loyalty of Black people in the U.S., specifically civil rights activist Paul Robeson. The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, was suspicious of “radical” Black activists and associated their activism against oppression with sympathy for communism. In Robeson’s case, the committee sought testimony on the activist’s comments in Paris, where he allegedly suggested African Americans wouldn’t fight in a war against the Soviet Union due to American oppression. 

Robinson, one of the most influential African American voices at the time, used his testimony on Robeson to denounce racial discrimination and Jim Crow. While he did push back on some of Robeson’s prior comments and on communism in general, Robinson used his platform to call out the government’s racism to its face. 

After he retired from baseball in 1957, Robinson became the vice president of personnel at the coffee company Chock Full o’Nuts. This move made him the first Black senior executive at a major U.S. company. Throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, Robinson leveraged his business acumen to invest in marginalized black communities.

Throughout his successful athletic and business ventures, Jackie never lost touch with the struggles faced by his race. He often voiced his concerns over race relations in a nationally syndicated column for the New York Post. He chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund Drive and accompanied Martin Luther King, Jr. on speaking tours. In the tightly contested 1960 presidential election, Robinson threw his support behind Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy because he thought that JFK’s civil rights policies were insincere. When Nixon became president later in the 1960s, Robinson fiercely distanced himself from him and the Republican Party for their civil rights failures. 

In October 1972, Robinson made his final plea for African American equality in baseball. In a speech at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, he criticized major league baseball for not yet hiring a Black team manager. He died later that month of a heart attack, three years before Frank Robinson became the first Black manager with Cleveland. 

Jackie Robinson is deservedly celebrated annually for his role in breaking the color barrier in professional baseball. But it is far too easy — and unacceptable — to reduce him to his baseball career. Everyone from baseball fans and activists owe it to Robinson and his legacy to take inspiration from his unfading courage and dedication to this country’s ideals. 

It’s as important as ever to embrace Robinson’s spirit of advocacy. Antidemocratic states are actively trying to eradicate Black history from the education system. A Florida county suspended books about Robinson and fellow Black baseball greats like Hank Aaron and Pittsburgh icon Roberto Clemente. Thankfully, the county schools deemed such books as appropriate for students upon further review by a “certified media specialist.” Undeterred, the state remains committed to restricting any and all forms of education on systemic racism through book bans and dystopian “anti-woke” laws

Tomorrow, go ahead and celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. Wear your 42 jersey with pride and watch some baseball. But keep in mind that Robinson’s life spanned more than his ten years as a Brooklyn Dodger. More importantly, remember to live as Jackie did, and don’t limit yourself. Do what you think is right and stand up for what you believe in — even if it means taking an unpopular position. 

Grant Van Robays writes primarily about international affairs, social issues and basic human rights. Write to him at [email protected].