On January 31, 1919, Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson was born into a family of sharecroppers on a plantation in Cairo, Georgia. Twenty-eight years later, he cemented his place in history when he broke the color barrier and became the first African American to compete in Major League Baseball in the modern era. Robinson would go on to win the MLB’s 1947 Rookie of the Year award before embarking on an illustrious career as a ball player, television analyst, businessman and civil rights leader. On the 95th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s birth, explore 11 little-known facts about the man who integrated baseball.
1. Robinson’s older brother was a silver medalist at the Olympics.
During Robinson’s youth in California, his older brother Mack was a star sprinter on the Pasadena Junior College track team. Despite struggling with a heart condition, Mack Robinson later clinched a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter race at the 1936 games in Berlin. After returning to Pasadena, Mack went on to set several junior college track and field records. Jackie later broke his brother’s long jump record, and may have had his sights set on his own Olympic glory before the 1940 games were cancelled because of World War II.
2. He was an accomplished athlete in several other sports.
Robinson’s strength and quickness made him an impressive all-around athlete, and during college at UCLA, he became the first student to letter in four different sports in a single season. In addition to baseball, he also shined in basketball as a guard and forward; in football as a quarterback, running back and safety; and in track and field as a long jumper. Robinson also moonlighted as a tennis player, and even captured a few amateur titles during his summer breaks from school. He later cashed his first checks as a pro athlete playing football for the Honolulu Bears and the Los Angeles Bulldogs, and continued to nurture his interest in other sports right up until the start of his Major League Baseball career. Only a few months before breaking baseball’s color barrier, he was playing pro basketball for the Los Angeles Red Devils.
3. He was a good friend of boxer Joe Louis during his time in the Army.
Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Robinson was drafted into the Army and assigned to a cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. While in basic training, he struck up a warm friendship with fellow recruit and champion boxer Joe “the Brown Bomber” Louis, who had famously bested the German Max Schmeling during a politically charged bout in 1938. Robinson and Louis often played golf together in their off hours, and Louis later used his prestige to help Jackie and several other black soldiers win entrance into the Army’s Officer Candidate School after they were unfairly denied admission because of their race.
4. Robinson didn’t play baseball between age 21 and 26.
Like many great athletes of his era, Robinson had his prime baseball years interrupted by World War II. Occupied by his pro football career and his military service, he played no organized baseball between his last UCLA game in 1940 and his first game for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. Amazingly, Robinson spent only one season in the Negro leagues before Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey selected him to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. After a successful spell at the minor league Montreal Royals in 1946, Robinson made his historic regular season debut for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947 at the age of 28.
5. Some Brooklyn Dodgers players signed a petition against Robinson joining the team.
Robinson faced near-constant racial abuse after entering the minors as baseball’s first black player. Many teams cancelled exhibition games to prevent him from playing, and he was regularly subjected to jeers from fans and fellow players alike. In one famous incident in Syracuse, New York, a rival player threw a black cat on the field and chided, “Hey Jackie, there’s your cousin.” After hitting a double and later scoring, Robinson responded, “I guess my cousin’s pretty happy now.”
His troubles on the field also found their way into the locker room. A few Brooklyn Dodgers players signed a petition to keep Robinson off their squad, and pitcher Kirby Higbe was traded after he refused to play on an integrated team. Other players were more welcoming. During one game, teammate Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson in a show of solidarity, and Pittsburg Pirates player Hank Greenberg—a Jewish ball player who had endured his own run-ins with racism—offered words of encouragement when the two met on the field.
6. Robinson was known for his skill at bunting.
Robinson is remembered as an electrifying base runner—he stole home base 19 times during his career—but his game also had a less flashy side. Always a team player, Robinson regularly laid down bunts and sacrifice hits to allow his teammates to advance on base or score. His first-ever hit in the Major Leagues was a bunt, and he went on to lead the league with 28 sacrifice hits during his debut season. Of the 46 bunts Robinson laid down in 1947, all except four resulted in either a base hit or a sacrifice.
7. He testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the summer of 1949, Robinson was unexpectedly called to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee—the Congressional board that conducted inquiries into the activities of suspected communist sympathizers and subversives. The request came in the wake of a controversy surrounding the black singer and actor Paul Robeson, who had remarked that African Americans would be unlikely to support a war against the Soviet Union after receiving such dismal treatment in the United States. Asked to comment on black loyalty to the American way of life, Robinson responded with a nuanced speech denouncing communism and the evils of racism. He also gently noted that Robeson—whom he admired for his civil rights stances—had been “silly” in his suggestions about black patriotism. The speech was hailed as a success, but Robinson would later express regret about having been caught up in the Committee’s witch hunts.
8. The FBI investigated after Robinson received death threats.
Robinson often received death threats against himself and his family, but in 1951 the danger seemed so imminent that the Feds were called in to investigate. Shortly before a game in Ohio, a mysterious source calling itself “Three Travelers” sent letters to the police, the Cincinnati Reds and a local paper vowing to shoot Robinson with a scoped rifle as soon as he stepped onto the field. The FBI looked into the matter, but to the fans’ delight, Robinson still played and even belted a home run over the center field fence.
9. He starred in a Hollywood movie based on his life story.
In 1950, Robinson became one of the big screen’s first black leading men when he starred as himself in the 1950 Hollywood film “The Jackie Robinson Story.” Though a it was a low-budget affair, the film performed well at the box office and Robinson received positive reviews for his performance.
10. He campaigned for Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential election.
After retiring from baseball in 1957, Robinson devoted himself to the civil rights movement and became an active voice in politics. During the 1960 presidential election, he surprised many of his contemporaries when he toured the country giving stump speeches for then-Vice President Richard Nixon, whom he argued had more appealing opinions on civil rights than John F. Kennedy. Robinson had personally met with Kennedy in July 1960, but had left the encounter feeling that the Massachusetts senator was disconnected from the plight of African Americans. The two went through a brief war of words in the press, but Robinson eventually reversed his opinion in the early 1960s, and later wrote of his admiration for both President Kennedy and his brother Robert F. Kennedy.
11. He continued to break down racial barriers after leaving baseball.
Robinson’s many “firsts” weren’t confined to the ball field. After retiring from sports, he took a job with the coffee shop chain Chock Full o’ Nuts and became the first black vice president of a major American corporation. In 1965, he made history again when he joined ABC-TV Sports as the nation’s first black baseball announcer.