Jackie Robinson’s Mama

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Jackie Robinson was the first black American to play on a Major League Baseball team in the 20th century. His mama played a major role in making that happen.

Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson was born in 1919 near Cairo, Georgia. His parents, Jerry and Mallie Robinson, named their fifth child after President Theodore Roosevelt. Six months after Jackie’s birth, his sharecropper father deserted his family. Jackie never saw him again. Ten months later, Mallie Robinson bravely took her five children by train to Pasadena, California, where her brother lived. She believed that God would look out for them. Mallie Robinson soon got a job washing and ironing.

Even as a child, Jackie realized how hard his mother worked to provide for them all. He wondered what was so special about her that made her able to do all she did. Mallie Robinson taught her children to have faith in God and to be kind to others. She insisted that her children get an education, attend Sunday school and church, and keep the family close to one another.

Jackie’s sister Willa Mae babysat him while his mother worked. The year before he was old enough to go to school himself, Mallie asked Willa Mae’s teacher if Jackie could stay in the
sandbox on the school’s playground while his sister was in class. The teacher agreed. When it rained, the kindergarten teacher allowed him to stay in her classroom.

Jackie’s mother continued to be gone during the day, and he began getting into trouble. A neighborhood mechanic pulled him aside and told him that he was just following the crowd and that if he did not straighten up, he would hurt his mother and himself. He said that following the crowd is easy, but being different takes courage and intelligence. Jackie took his rebuke to heart. Jackie’s minister also had a positive impact.

Jackie excelled in sports in the Pasadena public schools. His older brother Mack was also an outstanding athlete. Mack Robinson won a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, finishing second behind the legendary athlete Jesse Owens in the 200 meters race. After high school, Jackie Robinson attended Pasadena City College, the local junior college, where he broke a record in the long jump. His brother Mack had set the previous record. Jackie Robinson was named most valuable player on the football squad and the greatest base runner on a junior college baseball team.

After junior college, Robinson went on to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) where he was again a star athlete. Robinson became the first UCLA athlete to letter in four
sports in one school year. He played on the basketball team, was the national champion in the long jump, played shortstop on the baseball team, and played halfback on the football team. Robinson was named an All-American in football.

While at UCLA, he taught Sunday school. After UCLA, Robinson served in the Army. After the Army, he played for the Kansas City Monarchs, a Negro League baseball team.

Meanwhile in New York, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to try a noble experiment—to desegregate the major leagues. Rickey sent out scouts to search for talented players in the Negro League. All of his scouts noticed Jackie Robinson. Rickey researched Robinson and then brought him in for an interview on August 28, 1945.

Rickey chose Robinson for his noble experiment. They made history on April 14, 1947, when the 28-year-old Robinson walked out on the field and lifted his cap to cheering Dodger fans.

Though he experienced much discrimination that first year, Robinson played very well. He played first base in 151 of the Dodgers’ 154 games. The team won the National League pennant. The Sporting News named Robinson Outstanding Rookie of the Year. In 1982 this award was renamed the Jackie Robinson Award. Jackie Robinson played bravely and with determination, while he handled discrimination the same way.

Branch Rickey kept a Bible in his office and read it. He often slipped into churches to pray when he was traveling. Rickey said that when he came to New York to work for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he came to serve God. He believed that bringing the first African American player to the major leagues was the Lord’s work. At their first meeting, Rickey encouraged Robinson to follow Christ’s teaching of “turning the other cheek” when people were unkind to him. He told Robinson: “God is with us in this, Jackie.” Jackie Robinson looked back on his childhood and believed that his mother’s faith in God had helped her through difficult times. He said that God and Rickey made it possible for him to be the one to integrate Major League Baseball. Robinson often spoke in churches and at religious conventions. In a 1967 sermon, he spoke of the role of “the church of the living God” in helping America in the crisis of civil rights. He said that the Bible guided him in his own work for civil rights. In speeches, he compared the struggle of African Americans with the struggles of Job in the Bible.

During his retirement years, Robinson suffered from bad health. He died in 1972 when he was only 53 years old. His widow, Rachel Robinson, established the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides college scholarships to people of color. Rachel Robinson said that every night during Robinson’s first year in the major leagues in Brooklyn, he knelt beside their bed to pray, just as his mother had taught him.

Jackie Robinson at bat in a film still from the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story in which Robinson played himself. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Both Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson honored their mothers. As a boy, Rickey’s mother disapproved of baseball players because she believed they lived a rough life. Rickey promised her that he would never play baseball or go to a baseball stadium on a Sunday. He never did, except for one time during World War II when he attended a war bond drive at a stadium.

Jackie Robinson changed the course of his life when he made the decision to listen to the mechanic who warned him about hurting his mother and himself.

And let her rejoice who gave birth to you.
Proverbs 23:25b


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