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Did Jackie Robinson really break baseball's color barrier?


Jackie Robinson talks with Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey at a team training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, 1949. See other baseball pictures.
Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images

For baseball fans, civil rights activists and anyone who has seen the movie "42," it's considered common knowledge that Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson's emergence in the big leagues is hailed as a pioneering moment, not only in the integration of professional sports, but in the struggle for racial equality in America at large. Often overlooked in the story of Robinson's crowning achievement, however, are all the non-white players who had already been playing on baseball's biggest stage before he landed in Brooklyn [sources: Dreier, University of Illinois].

Robinson made history on April 15, 1947, when he started at first base (he later spent most of his career patrolling second base) in a home game at Ebbets Field, Brooklyn, an event widely regarded as the moment when baseball's color barrier was officially shattered. While there was no written rule in place banning black players from suiting up for professional clubs, big league owners had operated under an unwritten agreement to keep African-Americans off their teams since 1889 [sources: Corcoran, Dreier, Regan].

As a four-sport athlete at UCLA who thrived in the Negro Leagues prior to taking up with the Dodgers, this wasn't the first time that Robinson turned heads for his athletic abilities. Nor was it the first time he'd challenged segregation. In 1944, Robinson was court-martialed after refusing to move to the back of an Army bus in Fort Hood, Texas, where he was stationed as a second lieutenant. He was later acquitted on charges of insubordination and honorably discharged [source: Dreier].

Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn was largely orchestrated by Branch Rickey, the legendary Dodgers president who had previously built a dynasty with the Cardinals in St. Louis and who is also credited with creating the minor league "farm" system that big league teams use to develop talent to this day [sources: Dreier, The New York Times].

But Rickey and Robinson were not alone in their effort to desegregate the national pastime. Many other people had been agitating for this in the years prior to 1947.