In May 1942, after basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, despite his college background, Jackie Robinson was denied admission to Officers Candidate School.
He contacted black heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who was also stationed at Fort Riley. Louis informed the Department of War and immediately the policy toward black recruits was reversed.
Jackie completed Officers Candidate School and was made a 2nd lieutenant in the cavalry. Named a morale officer, he changed some Jim Crow policies on the base.
He was then transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, a difficult assignment for black officers. In July 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks, in the isolation of a heavily racist Army camp, Robinson refused to sit in the back of a post bus. He was court martialed but eventually acquitted of all charges.
Three years later, this grandson of plantation slaves would become the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century.
The baseball owners voted 15-1 not to allow him to play; players on his own team distributed a petition to prevent him from playing.
During his first years on the Brooklyn Dodgers, he faced vicious racist taunts from players and fans. He was the loneliest player in sports and the most courageous, as well as the most competitive.
Leo Durocher claimed: “He didn’t just come to play. He came to beat ya. He came to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.”
He led the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants and their only World Series during his 10-year Hall of Fame career.
On October 15, 1972, he appeared in public to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the desegregation of baseball. Nearly blind, before a World Series game in Cincinnati, he told the national television audience: “I’d like to live to see a black manager.”
Jackie did not live to see Frank Robinson named the first black major league manager in 1975. He died nine days after this interview.
To the end, he was what Red Smith said he was: “The unconquerable doing the impossible.”
From ages 7 to 16, as I watched Jackie play, I learned to fight for the things I believe in, to loathe bigotry and racism, to think of all human beings as equal, and to do my best to make sure that others enjoy the same rights I do.
It’s all written on Jackie’s tombstone: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”