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Opinion: Jackie Robinson was a true sports hero

A portrait of the Brooklyn Dodgers' infielder Jackie Robinson in uniform.
Hulton Archive
Getty Images
A portrait of the Brooklyn Dodgers' infielder Jackie Robinson in uniform.

Updated April 15, 2022 at 2:03 PM ET

Editor's note: Seventy-five years ago today, on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field and broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Scott Simon wrote this essay in 2019 for what would have been Robinson's 100th birthday.

I try not to say, "sports hero." An athlete may be electrifying and adored, and do much for their communities. But real heroes are people who run into burning buildings to save lives. Heroes are people who enrich the lives of others — and sometimes — move along history.

There is one athlete who has to be called a hero.

Jackie Robinson was born a hundred years ago next week, Jan. 31, 1919, in the small, segregated town of Cairo, Ga., the youngest of five children. A year later, his father left, and the Robinsons moved to southern California, where Jackie Robinson became one of the most celebrated young athletes in America.

He became 2nd Lt. Robinson in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II, but was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus on the U.S. Army base in Ft. Hood, Texas.

Jackie Robinson was proudly unapologetic and was acquitted. As he said — many times — "I am not concerned with your liking or disliking me. ... All I ask is that you respect me."

He began to play baseball in the old Negro Leagues after the war. There were many talented stars there, like Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, who could and would eventually be signed. But Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, foresaw that the first African-American player in major league baseball would also be the star of a daily national drama.

"I had to get a man who could carry the burden," said Mr. Rickey. "I needed a man to carry the badge of martyrdom."

He signed Jackie Robinson.

He broke into the big leagues in 1947. Most Americans saw baseball then in black and white. Jackie Robinson brought fire. Bigots in the stands hurled curses — and sometimes bottles and threats. Some opposing players slid into him with their spikes. Some opposing pitchers threw at his head. Jackie Robinson played, calmly, nobly and superbly under that profane hail.

When civil rights marchers of the 1960s walked across a bridge in Selma, or the streets of Birmingham, through a blizzard of police sticks, snarling dogs and water cannons, they could hold in their minds the image of Jackie Robinson, walking brave and unbowed to home plate.

Jackie Robinson was an athlete, not Martin Luther King Jr. in baseball stripes. But his own story galvanized his life, and when he left baseball, he became an activist for integration and justice. As President Barack Obama said, "There's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me." The history Jackie Robinson made helped make America better.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.