When Jackie Robinson changed baseball, and a country

  • Senior writer ESPN Magazine/ESPN.com
  • Analyst/reporter ESPN television
  • Has covered baseball since 1981

You love baseball. Tim Kurkjian loves baseball. So while we await its return, every day we’ll provide you with a story or two tied to this date in baseball history.

ON THIS DAY IN 1947, Jackie Robinson changed everything.

Buck O’Neill, former Negro League star, was on an Army base in the Philippines in 1945 when an officer summoned him at 10 p.m. with news. O’Neill grabbed the microphone and screamed throughout the base: “Branch Rickey has signed Jackie Robinson to an organized baseball contract.”

Two years later, on this date, Jackie Robinson changed the game, and the country, by becoming the first African-American to play in the major leagues.


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Robinson, 28, went hitless that first game, but scored a run, made 11 putouts at first base (a new position for him) as the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the Boston Braves 5-3.

“I don’t mean to be a crusader,” Rickey said. He wanted to make his team better, and the athleticism of Robinson did that. At UCLA, he was an All-American running back, he led the Pac-10 in scoring in basketball two years in a row, and he was a track star. In 1947, he won National League Rookie of the Year. In 1949, he won the NL Most Valuable Player Award.

“He could beat you in more ways than any player that I ever saw,” Dave Anderson, a columnist for The New York Times, once wrote.

Robinson provided the first step in the desegregation of baseball, and the first step in the post-war civil rights movement in America. It was difficult and dangerous. Death threats and racial epithets came in his first year in pro ball (1946), and it got worse when he got to the big leagues.

“I don’t know how Jackie did it,” Dodgers pitcher Rex Barney said. “The pressure. The expectations. The things people yelled at him. He’s the strongest man I’ve ever seen.”

It was the exceptional strength and courage of a remarkable athlete that changed the game.

On this date in 1997, MLB retired Robinson’s No. 42 in perpetuity. On this date in 2009, players on all MLB teams wore No. 42, which now happens every year. On this date in 2015, the Civil Rights game was established to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day.

“Jackie taught us all so much,” Hall of Famer Frank Robinson said. “One of the most important lessons was the only way to beat them, to beat the hate, was to beat them on the field.”

Other baseball notes from April 15

  • In 1954, Hank Aaron recorded his first hit. Take away his 755 homers, and he still has more than 3,000 hits.

  • In 1968, the Astros beat the Mets, 1-0, in 24 innings. It lasted 6 hours, 6 minutes. The Mets’ Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda, hitting third and fourth, went 0-for-20 with nine strikeouts. The losing pitcher was Les Rohr. There would be less roar in a game that was scoreless for 23 innings.

  • In 1987, Juan Nieves pitched a no-hitter against the Orioles to run the Brewers’ record to 9-0. The game ended on Robin Yount’s diving catch in right-center field on a line drive by Eddie Murray. I covered that game. Twenty years later, a man approached me on an airplane and asked, “You don’t recognize me, do you? I’m Juan Nieves.”

  • In 2008, Seattle’s Jose Lopez tied a major league record with three sacrifice flies in one game. Leo Posada, born on this date in 1936, tied Minnie Minoso for the league lead with 12 sacrifice flies in 1961. They would be the only sacrifice flies Posada would hit in his career. Yes, I’m Fascinated By Sacrifice Flies.

  • In 1989, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria was born. In 2019, Yankees bench coach Josh Bard said of Hechevarria’s defensive brilliance, “He laughs at ground balls.”

  • In 1969, Jeremy Burnitz was born. After the 2001 season, Brewer fans were not happy when he was traded to the Mets. Soon after, at the Brewers’ winter banquet, Bob Uecker, the hilariously funny master of ceremonies, said in deadpan voice, “Look, people have differing opinions on many issues. Take my career. Half the people thought I was the worst player they’ve ever seen, and the other half thought I was a disgrace to the uniform.”

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