To commemorate the historic moment of Major League Baseball integrating 75 years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture has placed a jersey of baseball icon Jackie Robinson on view for a limited time. The jersey, one of approximately five known to have been worn by Robinson, will remain on view until May 1 in the museum’s “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” gallery.
In addition, the museum will host a special event April 15, also known as Jackie Robinson Day, discussing Robinson’s legacy. Moderated by Justin Tinsley, senior cultural writer of Andscape, the panel will feature Howard University Africana Studies professor Greg Carr, museum curator of sports Damion Thomas, professional softball player AJ Andrews and vice president and club counsel for the Boston Red Sox Elaine Weddington Steward. In 1990, Steward became the assistant general manager of the Boston Red Sox, making her the first woman and the second African American in Major League Baseball to hold the position. The public can register for the live-streamed event and learn more about Robinson on the museum’s newest webpage “Celebrating Jackie.”
“Robinson’s debut as the first African American in Major League Baseball was a catalyst for not only the integration of sports, but for larger movements that advocated for civil rights and equality for all African Americans,” said Damion Thomas, sports curator at the museum. “Seventy-five years later, the legacy of Robinson’s courageous act is well regarded as a seminal moment in history.”
An outstanding baseball player, Robinson integrated Major League Baseball April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York, wearing the number “42.” The jersey on display in the museum is Robinson’s road jersey from the 1951 baseball season. His major league debut played a pivotal role in how the nation would respond to integrating teams. In doing so, he became the biggest name in baseball since Babe Ruth and won Rookie of the Year. His success had ramifications far beyond the playing field as many African American leaders saw the “noble experiment” as a model for widespread integration. After Robinson’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked on the monumental influence Robinson’s career had on the civil rights movement: “He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
For the first half of the 20th century, Major League Baseball excluded African American players from their rosters. Most Black players turned to the Negro Leagues to showcase their skills on the national level. In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey decided to take the first step to integrate the Major Leagues.
Rickey had already begun scouting the Negro Leagues in search of potential players to add to the Dodgers’ roster when he identified Robinson as a potential pick. As a military officer and college-educated, non-southern Negro League player with a level-headed demeanor, Robinson was seen by many as an ideal candidate to be the first African American to play in the major leagues. Two years after meeting with Rickey, Robinson played his first game in the major leagues, making him the first African American player in professional baseball’s modern era and breaking the game’s color barrier.
Throughout his career, Robinson was heavily involved in activism and constantly advocated for greater efforts to reform Major League Baseball. Following his retirement in 1955, he concentrated his popularity and voice on activism and the civil rights movement. He was one of the most sought-after speakers and fundraisers for the NAACP.
In 1997, 50 years after Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Major League Baseball retired his jersey number 42 from all teams; he is the first and only player in major professional sports in the United States to receive that honor. In 2004, Major League Baseball officially declared April 15 as “Jackie Robinson Day” in commemoration of Robinson’s debut and integration of Major League Baseball.
The museum is now open to the public seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Visitors may enter the museum until 4 p.m.
Free timed-entry passes are required for entry.