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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

The pioneer
Robinson's entrance into the big leagues spelled the beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues
By Tom Singer/MLB.com


The beginning of the end for the Negro Leagues came when Jackie Robinson signed a pro contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945.
Born: Jan. 31, 1919, Cairo, Ga.
Died: Oct. 24, 1972, Stamford, Conn.
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Hall of Fame induction: 1962

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Were he not tapped on the shoulder by destiny, all indications are Jackie Robinson would have been a transient blip on the Negro League radar. It wasn't a question of talent -- Robinson hit .387 or .345, depending on the source, in his only season with the Kansas City Monarchs -- but of inclination.

Robinson was a man of substance who, rather than live for the moment like many carefree Negro Leaguers, always considered the big picture. After all, in the spring of 1941 he had walked out on UCLA after a brilliant two-year collegiate career because he saw no athletic future in a segregated world -- older brother Mack's Silver Medal at the 1936 Olympics had earned him only a job as a street-sweeper.

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Instead, Jackie Robinson spent several months working as a counselor with the National Youth Administration, until the post-Pearl Harbor Army came calling. Stationed in Texas, he was a frequent participant in camp ballgames, and one day was inadvertently scouted by Kansas City pitcher Hilton Smith, upon whose word the Monarchs signed him following his discharge.

So Robinson was already a baseball-old 26 when he became a reluctant professional in 1945 for $100 a month. There is a high probability he would not have endured the itinerant lifestyle for long before bolting in quest of deeper accomplishments.

Of course, the accomplishment came looking for him. After his one season in the Negro American League, on the appropriate date of October 23 -- he had worn uniform No. 23 as the Monarchs shortstop -- Robinson and, though buried by history, teammate pitcher John Wright both were signed into Organized Baseball by Branch Rickey.

Only one season with the International League's Montreal Royals delayed Robinson from baseball's watershed event of the 20th century. On April 15, 1947 -- a little over two years removed from playing in Army-base games -- Robinson took Ebbets Field as the Dodgers' Opening Day second baseman.


Although he is best known as a second baseman, Jackie Robinson played a handful of games at first base.
Countless African-Americans have followed in those footsteps.

"Every time I look in my wallet," Willie Mays once observed, "I see Jackie Robinson."

The courageous, proud, pioneering deed -- more than any act on the field -- inspired Robinson's immortality.

His late-blooming 10-year playing career, by any objective evaluation, was somewhat modest. He had one 200-hit season, one 30-steal season, one 100-RBI season. He never reached 20 homers.

Everything did come together for Robinson in his MVP season of 1949, when he won the National League batting title at .342 while driving in 124 runs and stealing 37 bases. Yet, it's pretty clear it was neither his bat nor his glove that earned Robinson first-ballot Hall of Fame election in 1962, but his nerve and his heart.

Reflecting on how Robinson strove through the 1947 abuse and notoriety to a .297 average and the Rookie of the Year Award, double-play partner Pee Wee Reese once said, "To be able to hit with everybody yelling at him, ... he had to block out everything but this ball coming in at 100 mph. To do what he did has to be the most tremendous thing I've ever seen in sports."

It also was the most far-reaching. Robinson's emergence in the Majors effectively submerged the Negro Leagues, which for three decades had been a profitable Black enterprise as a viable alternative for the public's sports spending.


Jackie Robinson made his last public appearance during the 1972 World Series. He told the fans that he wanted an African-American managing in baseball.
"A lot of people knew what was going to happen, because of what Jackie Robinson did to attendance at Major League games," Frank Bolden, at the time City Editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, the voice of that city's black community, recalled recently. "When the Dodgers played here ... People would come from Detroit and Washington, D.C. and all over to see the games."

By the mid-'50s, only the Monarchs, Memphis Red Sox, Birmingham Black Barons and Detroit Stars were left.

The effect of Robinson's breakthrough thus was far more immediate on the Negro Leagues than it was on the Major Leagues. The notion that his success opened the floodgates for African-American players is a common distortion.

Two other big-leagues clubs (Cleveland, with Larry Doby, and the St. Louis Cardinals, with Hank Thompson and Willard Brown) also integrated in that 1947 season. But only three other teams followed suit in the next five years.

And a sobering truth: When Robinson retired in 1956, three of the 16 Major League teams had yet to field a Black player. The last of the color line was erased by the Boston Red Sox's Pumpsie Green in 1959 -- by then the Dodgers weren't even in Brooklyn.

Jackie Robinson entered the game with a mandate, and left it with clarity, saying, "The way I figured it, I was even with baseball, and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it."

Ravaged by diabetes, John Roosevelt Robinson passed away in 1972 at the young age of 53.

Tom Singer covers the Angels for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.