Monday, Mar. 31, 2003

Breaking the Color Line

April 15, 1947

The game wasn't a sellout. It lured 25,623 fans, more than half of them black, to the 32,000-seat Ebbets Field. What those present saw was a piece of history in nine innings: a black man played in a major league game for the first time. Of course, Jackie Robinson didn't break the color line in baseball all by himself. He needed Branch Rickey to do it.

The president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers was the one with the will and the power to upend the idiotic myopia of the sport's other sachems. (Were they afraid that blacks couldn't play baseball or afraid that they could play it too well?) Rickey had been searching for an athlete whose poise matched his skills, who could swallow the racist insults sure to be directed at him by players and fans — someone, Rickey told Robinson at their first meeting, "with guts enough not to fight back."

Robinson was the man. The first four-sport star at UCLA, an Army veteran, a budding Negro League phenom, Robinson neither smoke nor drank and possessed a heroic reserve off the field to complement his fiery resolve on it. As he stepped to the plate in a Dodgers' uniform, he was a mature 28 years old that April day. (By contrast, Derek Jeter was playing in his eighth major league season when he reached that age last June.) But in a magnificent 10-year Hall of Fame career Robinson made up for lost time—his and that of the great Negro League ballplayers who never got the chance to shine in the Bigs. When Robinson stepped onto the field, it was the day baseball finally earned the right to be called the national pastime.