The Ultimate Athlete Who Broke Baseball’s Bigotry Barrier

In 1947, Jackie Robinson started a paradigm shift in professional baseball.

Posted Apr 13, 2014

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

 Jackie Robinson day is here again in Major League Baseball. This tradition began in 2004 to honor Jackie’s career and fortitude in breaking MLB’s color barrier. He previously played professional for the Kansas City Monarchs (1945) and Montreal Royals (1946). Since Jackie had his first appearance for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, this is celebrated every season on the same calendar day. His iconic jersey number “42” was officially retired from all of baseball in 1997 but continues to be worn in homage to Robinson’s career on Jackie Robinson day each season.

 A few weeks ago, Batman began his 75th Anniversary season. DC Comics uses the date of March 30, 1939 as Batman’s birthday. Last year when “42” the movie was released I was inspired to read and learn much more about Jackie Robinson’s inspirational and self-made life. This, combined, with my familiarity with the self-made fictional superhero Batman due to the research from my first book, spurred me to write “Jackie Robinson—The Batman of Baseball” last year. At the time I had considered Jackie’s all round athleticism in the context of baseball only.

 As a baseball fan—and of sport generally—I continue to read and marvel about Jackie Robinson. Recently, during a visit to UCLA, my appreciation for Jackie’s athleticism went to a new level. I greatly enjoyed visiting Jackie Robinson stadium and seeing the statue and plaques in his honour. My photograph of the plaque is shown in this post. Seeing all of these things really brought home just how skilled Jackie Robinson was at so many things.

 Before his career in professional baseball, Robinson was an amazingly distinguished high school and college athlete. At John Muir High School he was shortstop and catcher for the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, guard for basketball, and won the junior boys tennis championship!

 Beginning in 1937 at Pasadena College, he received an athletic scholarship to transfer to UCLA. Although family commitments forced him to leave school and kept him from convocating with his degree, he lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track thus became the first 4-sport athlete to letter at UCLA.

 In Becoming Batman I made the case that the sum of Batman’s abilities arise from his all-around athleticism. This is why I previously drew performance parallels between the fictional super-hero, Batman, and the real-life super-athlete, Jackie Robinson.

 This comparison of real and fictional athleticism in the guise of Jackie Robinson and Batman is valid. There’s another layer to this too and that is that they both are based on an ethos of hard work and unrelenting desire to succeed. These are certainly inspirational touchstones for achievement against the odds.

 But there’s something about all of these parallels that disturbs me greatly. Without question Jackie Robinson was an amazing athlete and you could make the argument (and many have done) that he was the greatest athlete of all time. What is disturbs me is that it took someone of absolutely off the charts athletic ability to break baseball’s bigotry barrier in the first place. That is a travesty.

 Which got me to thinking of the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996). He wrote a really interesting book about progress in science called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. The key point of this book that is relevant here is that science—like baseball—clings to an idea or paradigm about how things work no matter what the evidence until finally something undeniable happens that causes a paradigm shift.

 Jackie Robinson caused a paradigm shift in baseball. Because of that paradigm shift many things changed and many athletes had access to amazing careers.

 Back in the 1980s, NIKE celebrated the career of multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson, who excelled as with MLB’s Kansas Royals and NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders, with the classic “Bo Knows” commercial campaign. Bo Jackson was an amazing professional athlete and is the only person to be an All-Star in both MLB and the NFL. I watched Bo Jackson and his exploits enthusiastically.

 While I can’t—and won’t—argue with what Bo did or did not know, I can say this—Jackie Robinson knew it first. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s bigotry paradigm. Unfortunately, although that paradigm was officially broken on April 15, 1947, aspects of that bigotry continue to linger to present day.

 © E. Paul Zehr (2014)