Jack Roosevelt Robinson (January 31, 1919 - October 24, 1972) became the first black Major League baseball player of the modern era in 1947. The significance of this event in U.S history is such that every major league baseball team has retired his number, 42.
Born in Cairo, Georgia, USA, Jackie Robinson was a football and baseball star at the University of California in Los Angeles, where he played with Kenny Washington, who would become one of the first black players in the National Football League. After serving in the military during World War II, Robinson played baseball for a while for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. There, he was noticed by a scout working for Branch Rickey.
Rickey was the club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and had the secret goal of signing the Negro Leagues' top players to the team. Although there was no official ban on blacks in organized baseball, previous attempts at signing black ballplayers had been thwarted by league officials and rival clubs in the past, and so Rickey operated under cover. His scouts were, supposedly, scouting for a new all-black league Rickey was forming. Even the scouts themselves did not know the true objective.
Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising candidates, signed him, and assigned him to play for the Dodgers' minor-league affiliate in Montreal in 1946. Although that season was very trying emotionally for Robinson, it was also a spectacular success in a city that treated him with all the wild fan support that made the Canadian city a welcome refuge from the hateful harassment he experienced elsewhere.
Robinson was a slightly curious candidate to be the first black Major Leaguer in sixty years. Not only was he 27, old for a prospect, he also had a fiery temperament. His future Dodger teammate Roy Campanella might have been a better candidate to face the jeering crowds and abusive opponents that Rickey had expected.
Robinson's debut at second base with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, was one of the most eagerly-awaited events in baseball history, and one of the most profound in the history of the U.S. civil rights movement.
During that first season, the abuse Robinson was subjected to made him come close to losing his patience more than once. However, while many Dodgers were initially resistant to his presence, he did have the support of shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who proved to be his closest comrade on the team. The pair became a very effective defensive combination as a result.
Robinson was awarded the Rookie of the Year award in 1947, and the National League Most Valuable Player award in 1949. He not only contributed to Brooklyn pennants in both years, but his determination and hustle kept the Dodgers in pennant races in 1950 and 1951 when they might otherwise have been eliminated much sooner.
Robinson's Major League career was fairly short. He did not enter the majors until he was 28 and he was done by the time he was 37. But in his prime, he was respected and feared by every opposing team in the league.
Robinson was an exceptionally talented and disciplined hitter, with a career average of .317 and substantially more walks than strikeouts. He played several defensive positions extremely well and was the most aggressive and successful baserunner of his era. By his talent and physical presence, he disrupted the concentration of pitchers, catchers and middle infielders. Robinson's overall talent was such that he is often cited as one of the very best players of his time. He is also frequently claimed to be one of the most intelligent baseball players ever, a claim that is well supported by his plate discipline and defensive prowess.
Robinson retired from the game on January 5, 1957. He had wanted to manage or coach in the major leagues, but received no offers. He became a vice-president for the Chock Full O' Nuts Corporation instead and was elected to the United States Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
As a tribute to Robinson, in 1997 all major-league baseball teams agreed to retire Robinson's jersey number, 42 (though players currently wearing the number could continue to do so).
For details, see Jules Tygiel's book, Baseball's Great Experiment.