He endured racial taunts and Jim Crow laws to change America's pastime forever
When Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey decided to give Jackie Robinson, an African-American, the chance to prove himself in all-white Major League Baseball, he quickly became one of the least popular men in the league.
Although he had the support of baseball commissioner Happy Chandler, Rickey infuriated his 15 fellow owners when he brought Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947. But he went ahead on his own terms, and made Robinson abide by them.
"Even with Rickey, there were conditions," explained Hall of Fame pitcher Don Newcombe, who would be one of the next two blacks on the Dodgers. "Jackie, who had always been very aggressive, had to promise Rickey in 1946 that ... he wouldn't fight back on the field. I mean no matter what kind of names some white fans called Robinson; no matter how often rival pitchers threw at his head, he had to agree not to react."
"It wasn't easy for Jackie on road trips, either, because he was never allowed to stay at the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his teammates," continues Newcombe.
When Robinson joined the Dodgers, he entered a different world. Before 1947, only a handful of blacks (usually passed off as dark-skinned American Indians or Cubans) had played occasionally at the major-league level. The only time professional baseball strayed from its closed-shop attitude was during occasional off-season exhibitions between major leaguers and Negro League teams. Targeted mostly for big cities without major league teams, the events drew huge crowds. The fact that Negro teams often won, especially if Satchel Paige pitched, made few headlines.
But Robinson immediately made headlines for the Dodgers. He batted .297 with 12 home runs and chalked up 29 stolen bases - modest by today's standards, but eye-opening at a time when that weapon was not generally popular with managers.
And the point is that Robinson didn't just run, he exploded with a sense of theater that put all other action on hold once he reached first base. Fans couldn't take their eyes off him. In fact, television was so intrigued by his base-stealing antics that it invented the split screen to let viewers watch Jackie and the pitcher at the same time.