Did Jackie Robinson Really Break Baseball's Color Barrier?

Crossing the Color Barrier

Long before Robinson crossed the color line, sports journalists, reporters for African-American newspapers, union leaders and civil rights activists had demanded that it be obliterated, a campaign that mirrored similar struggles to fight discrimination in housing, employment and the military. Throughout the 1930s and '40s, unions and civil rights groups picketed places like Yankee Stadium and Ebbets Field in New York and Wrigley Field in Chicago, demanding baseball integrate [source: Dreier]. These protests set the stage for Robinson to join Major League Baseball (MLB).

Robinson found his launching pad to big league superstardom in the Negro Leagues, where he and a number of top African-American ballplayers displayed their talents while shunned from MLB. He wasn't the only MLB-caliber player who toiled there: Catcher Roy Campanella and legendary pitcher Satchel Paige were among a number of Negro Leaguers to later join Robinson in the majors. Rickey tapped Robinson to cross the color line, not only because of his athletic prowess, but also because of Robinson's relatively young age (28), college education and experience competing with and against white players. Rickey also valued Robinson's temperament, in particular his agreement not to lash out against the taunts, threats or other offensive behavior he would inevitably face over the course of that first full season [sources: Goldman, Dreier].

Rickey's motivation was not just a singular desire to right a wrong. The crafty executive thought that integration could help sell tickets by attracting black fans, a growing number of whom were moving to larger cities. "Jackie's nimble, Jackie's quick, Jackie makes the turnstiles click," is how one historian described the thinking at the time [sources: Dreier, Inskeep].

The move worked. Despite meeting with intense racism and antagonism along the way -- Robinson led the National League in number of times being hit by a pitch in his rookie season -- he went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career. He led the Dodgers to six National League pennants over 10 seasons with the club, collecting the first Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award and a batting title along the way. In 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson's number 42 for all teams, meaning that no player can take a pro ball field with that number on his back [sources: JackieRobinson.com, University of Illinois].

There is no doubt that Jackie Robinson is the best-known color barrier crosser in baseball history, but he was not the first. Read on to find out about some of the hardball's less celebrated integration pioneers.