Robinson's Historic Debut Remembered

Jackie Robinson #42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for a portrait circa 1947 - 1956. (Photo by Photo File/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Getty Images/MLB Photos
Major league baseball teams honor their greatest players by retiring their numbers, but one number has been retired by every major league team: Jackie Robinson's number 42.

On Sunday, April 15, 2007, the number 42 will grace fields everywhere, as baseball marks the 60th anniversary of the day Robinson broke the game's color barrier.

Jonathan Eig, the author of a new book, "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," visited The Saturday Early Show to talk about Robinson's accomplishments, courage and fierce tenacity in the face of racism; and his impact on America, seen from the perspective of 60 years.

The year was 1947. Remind us what life was like for black Americans, and especially black ball players, then.

Well, segregation was the rule, not just in the South where it was so blatant, but in the North, too. Even in New York, a lot of white people wouldn't eat in the same restaurant with black people and some even expected blacks to step off the sidewalk when they met. But the war had just ended, and blacks had fought in it, and they came back wondering, where's the democracy we were fighting for? And that's where the movement started.

Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia, but the family moved to southern California before he was 2. How did that affect his life?

It gave him a chance to play sports year round and develop his talent. But more importantly, he could compete with white athletes in California, something he couldn't have done in the South. There was segregation, but it was a much less severe form of it. And Robinson's mother was a powerful woman, who pushed him hard, determined to see her kids have a better life than hers. She was a force of nature.

Read An Excerpt From The Book
Photo Essay: Jackie Robinson
In the prologue to your book, you list a series of "ifs" that had to work out for Robinson to succeed in Major League Baseball — and prove the white racists wrong. What were they?

If white ball players had boycotted. If the manager had benched him. If he'd twisted an ankle. If he'd blown his top. If black fans had rioted in the stands, as some whites feared. Any of those things and the experiment would've been over before it started. And if he was a .197 hitter — forget it.

The man who brought Robinson in to major league baseball was Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Describe him for us.

Rickey was one of the most complicated and brilliant men the game has ever seen. He wanted to win, he wanted to make money, he wanted to take advantage of other narrow-minded owners, all those things. He prepared for the moment (of signing Robinson) scrupulously, and he settled on Jackie Robinson. It was the greatest individual piece of scouting in the history of American sports. Robinson was not the obvious guy, not a Roy Campanella, a quiet guy with a low profile. Rickey wanted someone who would make an impression of strength, and show whites that blacks were tough.

One of the barriers you describe Robinson as having to overcome is that the 1947 Dodgers were "Southern in character." What do you mean by that?

The core of the team, all the most important players, were Southern: Pee Wee Reese, Dixie Walker, Eddie Stanky. The leaders of the team, all Southern, set the tone in the clubhouse. You can just imagine the kind of jokes and comments there were, and why there was talk on the team of refusing to play, to boycott. The beautiful thing is that the guys had to decide whether they wanted their baseball careers or their prejudices, and over the course of the season they put it to the test. They feared society would implode if blacks were treated equally. And of course the world did not implode — and the Dodgers won the pennant.

You write that most great athletes keep their emotions under wraps, separate from their performance on the field. But not Robinson. What was he like?

He was an angry, angry man, even in the happiest times of his life. He carried about him this anger that was palpable. He used it as fuel, it drove him to succeed. Without it, he might not have been the great athlete he was. But it was a very risky experiment in 1947, because he could go off at any moment.

Branch Rickey told Robinson he'd have to "turn the other cheek" when faced with racism. Robinson asked if Rickey wanted a player who didn't have the guts to fight back. What did Rickey answer?

He said he wants a player with the guts NOT to fight back. Robinson saw that as a great challenge. Rickey wanted to find out if he was strong enough not to fight. And Robinson liked the challenge.

Okay, April 15th, 1947 — Opening Day at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, the Dodgers and the visiting Boston Braves. You write that the crowd in the stands was very different from the previous year. Tell us about that.

The crowd was about three-fifths black, something never seen before in Ebbets Field. Black fans were usually just a sprinkling. And there were 5,000 empty seats on Opening Day, when there was beautiful weather. And the reason was, white fans weren't sure if they'd be comfortable. They worried that black fans might celebrate too enthusiastically. But black fans were on their best behavior — and black papers all around the country continuously reminded fans not to make a scene. All season long, black and white fans got along fine. And suddenly, Jackie Robinson was a Dodger first, and a black man second.

How did Robinson do on the field that day?

He did okay. Went 0-for-3, but reached on an error, scored on daring base running.

Three days later, on the 18th, he hit his first home run as a Dodger, against the rival New York Giants. There's a famous picture of that. Tell us about it.

Robinson crosses home plate and there's a white hand outstretched, a player named Tommy Tatum shook his hand. The Daily News got this beautiful picture of that scene. A beautiful sight, one of my favorite pictures of all time.

Robinson played for 10 years and his best season was 1949, when he hit .342 and won the Most Valuable Player award. But purely in terms of on-field performance, how did he stack up against other great players of his era?

Well, from a purely on-field performance perspective, he was a borderline call for the Hall. But Pee Wee Reese made it, and his numbers weren't all that great, either. Robinson had a few great years, but by the early 50's he was starting to decline. After all, he started at age 28, a little old for a rookie.

Let's talk about the bigger picture: summarize how Jackie Robinson's breakthrough impacted American society, especially for African Americans.

It's hard for us today to imagine how powerful the waves were that he set off. Society was still segregated, the Army was still segregated, blacks couldn't even vote in the South. But there was no government edict — Jackie Robinson just made a baseball team better. And these white Southern players go home and say, it wasn't so bad. And factory owners start thinking they can hire black workers. It just changes people's thinking in so many ways. One of the greatest moments in U.S. history. And imagine: the black papers at the time were saying that Jackie Robinson can do more for African Americans than Frederick Douglass did. And Robinson had to read that and then go out and play ball every day, and produce. It's about as much pressure as I can imagine.

Is there anything you learned about Robinson in writing this book that really surprised you?

I guess the biggest surprise is what an intense, angry guy he was, a guy who had to turn the other cheek, who wasn't a pacifist by nature. And how alone he was in '47. So many of those who claimed they were on his side in fact waited until after he'd proved himself.

( and Simon & Schuster, which published "Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season," are both part of CBS Corp.)