“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” This, more than his on-the-field statistics, can be viewed as his enduring legacy. He was born in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers, the youngest of five children, and his mother moved the family to Pasadena, California, the following year. He grew up in relative poverty and the prejudice the family encountered in an otherwise affluent neighborhood only helped make his family bond stronger. Early in life, he began to make his mark as a gifted athlete. He was an all-star in four sports—track, football, basketball and baseball, both in high school and later in college at UCLA. He also excelled in tennis, winning the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament at age 17.
Despite his athletic successes, his life was greatly affected by the segregation that existing in this country during his lifetime. Drafted in 1942, he was initially denied admission to Officer Candidate School, but he was finally admitted after strenuous protests led by boxing champion Joe Lewis and an aide to the Secretary of War. Although he served his country well as a second lieutenant, his military career is best recognized for his refusal to move to the back of a military transport bus and his confrontation with the military police because of it. He was court-marshaled in 1944 but was acquitted by an all-white panel of nine officers. This action kept him from joining his former unit, the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion” when they were deployed overseas and played an important role in learning how to handle racist attacks when he broke Major League Baseball’s color line, his most recognized achievement.
On April 5, 1947, with the help and support of Brooklyn Dodger president Branch Rickey, he took the field with the Dodgers. Rickey knew that Robinson was not necessarily the best pure ballplayer in the Negro Leagues, that would have been Josh Gibson, but he felt Robinson had greatest ability to perform under what would be difficult conditions. Rickey was proven correct—Robinson’s career on the field was legendary and it opened the door for other black athletes to get their chance. Robinson was Rookie of the Year in 1947, National League MVP in 1949, a member of the World Series champions in 1955, and entered its Hall of Fame in 1962—his first year of edibility. In 1997, Major League Baseball universally retired his number “42” across all major league teams, making him the first professional athlete in any sport to gain this honor.
He was not “just” an athlete. He continued to make his mark after he retired from baseball, becoming Major League Baseball’s first black television analyst and the first black vice-president of a major American corporation, Chock full o’ Nuts. In the 1960s, he was one of the founders of the Freedom National Bank—a black-owned and operated commercial bank in Harlem, New York, and served as the bank’s Chairman of the Board.
As an ongoing tribute to his achievements, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2005. In 2007, he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.