Jackie Robinson Through Baseball Cards
April 10, 2013
by William Szczepanek
Over the years there has been much discussion of Jackie Robinson and his contribution to baseball and society as the first black baseball player in the Major Leagues in the modern era. It might be interesting to go back in time and see how this achievement was depicted in baseball cards and the effect it had on some of those growing up at the time. Racial prejudice is something that people grow up with or have imposed upon them as they grow up, but one thing is certain, young kids don't recognize any differences. They learn them.
We again will be celebrating Jackie Robinson, the number 42, and his accomplishments, players all wearing his retired jersey number and a new movie of his life. My personal feeling is that the events have become too commercialized, much like baseball cards. People are still making money from Jackie Robinson's life. When we actually stop commercializing his life and times we may have reached a point where we can put this stuff behind us and say we have accomplished something. We are not much closer to achieving our goals than we were 70 years ago and many players other than Robinson suffered indignities in order to move all of us forward. At some point we need to focus on the rights of all people, no matter what color, much like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached.
We all know that African Americans had a league of their own - the Negro Leagues. It was highly popular and very profitable before Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. They had stars who have since been inducted into Baseball's Hall of Fame for their legendary and often exaggerated performances. I say exaggerated because much of their glory came through barnstorming against not so great competition. Satchel Paige was not unhittable and Josh Gibson did not hit 900 home runs. They were great players and many of them had extremely successful Major League careers.
Two players come to mind who were from this era but had the opportunity to make the Major Leagues when they were young. Henry Aaron and Willie Mays became two of the greatest to ever play the game. They were great on day one when they were in their teens, and both felt the sting of racial prejudice.
Following Robinson's minor league stint in Montreal where he batted .349 to lead the International League in hitting, Branch Rickey brought him up to play for the Dodgers at the beginning of 1947 and Robinson became the first African American to play in the Major Leagues in the modern era. While he was supported in Montreal he faced significant hostility on road trips in the minors. His problems persisted once in the Majors. He started in his first game at first base on April 15th, but played most of his career at 2nd. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year Award hitting .297 and leading the league in steals with 29, while also leading the league in sacrifices with 28. This occurred with a tremendous amount of feuding on the Dodgers team.
Leo Durocher took charge in his own, if not politically correct, way, "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded." I always liked Leo Durocher.
Jackie Robinson was great in his own way, but he was selected
to be the first because he was deemed strong enough to handle
the prejudice and hatred that would be imposed on him and still
play exceptionally well. If he didn't play well the experiment
could possibly fail or at least be delayed. And the experiment
was done with the idea of making money for Branch Rickey and the
Major Leagues. Robinson made less money playing in the Majors
than he did playing in the Negro Leagues, but once the move was
made the Negro Leagues fell apart and the money was no longer
there to be made.
His work made is easier for others, like Larry Doby and Satchel Paige to make the move to the Big Show. In 1949 Robinson would be MVP and lead the league in batting with a .342 average and he would play a large role in the Dodgers' ability to get into the World Series and eventually win. By the early 1950s the move to bring the best black players into the league was moving forward with considerable success. It would take until 1959 before all teams had accomplished what was inevitable. We all know the history.
This is where my perspective as a child, around age six, begins. I did not know about the Negro Leagues. I did not know that Jackie Robinson was the first black player or that Larry Doby was the second. I just knew that all black players in the Majors seemed to be better than most other players, with the exception of Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle. As I began collecting baseball cards I had this confused perspective as a child. I was really happy when I got a baseball card of a black player because I knew they had to be good. I remember looking at my 1957 card of Larry Doby on the White Sox and considered him the best on the team right along with Minnie Minoso. On the other side of town Ernie Banks was having an the first of two consecutive MVP seasons. I opened a new pack of baseball cards and was very pleased to see Gene Baker and thought that the Cubs were on their way with a shortstop like Banks and 2nd baseman like Baker. I was saddened to hear that on May 1, 1957 Gene Baker and Dee Fondy, my favorite player at the time, were traded to Pittsburgh for Dale Long and Lee Walls. It seemed unfair that baseball teams could trade players.
Anyway the list went on.
Hank Thompson looked like a great on
the Giants, while Banks,
Clemente destroyed any
teams they met. I saw all of them early in their career as a
young kid in a box seat in Wrigley Field with my dad. They were
all skinny, no bulging muscles, but could hit the ball
further than anyone else with just a flick of the bat.
Jackie Robinson had a series of cards produced by Bond Bread in 1947 (black and white at top). He was card number 50 in the 1949 Bowman series and card number 22 for 1950. Robinson would grace the 1952 Topps set as card number 312 and move up to card number 1 in 1953 (pictured at the very top) and number 50 in 1955. The card that I remember him best was from 1956 and for a long time I thought that Jackie Robinson was number 45, the player walking up to bat in the picture. Johnny Podres is actually number 45 and Robinson is sliding into home. I bet all of you knew that.
1956 was Robinson's last season. At age 37 he was slowing down and batted .275 for the year. He did come in 16th in MVP voting. He was to be traded to the Giants in 1957, but retired from baseball instead to work as an executive for Chock full o'Nuts. Maybe he could still move quicker than people thought.