Sunday, November 29, 2015

Jackie Robinson and Leadership

Midshipman Matt Miller shares a research paper below in which he explores the topic of leadership via the man who "broke the color barrier" in major league baseball.  It's both informative and thought provoking.  Enjoy.


Almost seventy years ago, there were 16 major league baseball teams embracing four

hundred white athletes. Then on April 15, 1947, that number dropped to three hundred and

ninety-nine white athletes and increased by just one black athlete. It was opening day at

Brooklyn Stadium. Fifty-two thousand baseball fans crowded rapidly into the stadium and

witnessed a historical event. Some fans screamed racial slurs. Others threw trash on the field.

This display of animosity and vexation was all because of one black man playing in a baseball

game, Jackie Robinson. The wonderful game of baseball has grown up with America and

Americans describe it as their friend. Beginning 177 years ago, the game, known as America's

favorite past time, was first played in 1829 at Harvard University. Professional baseball was

birthed in 1876, the same year the National League was formed. America’s baseball has always

mirrored society in general. For example, every game begins with a demonstration of patriotism

as shown by the singing of the National Anthem. Unfortunately, even the dark times of

American history have been displayed on the baseball field. Although the civil war was over,

racism was still present in society during the 1940’s. Professional baseball teams were

segregated. Black men formed their leagues because they were not allowed to participate in the

game with other white men. These Negro League teams produced great stars and over time

baseball began to notice. One man, in particular, Branch Rickey, who was the manager of the

Brooklyn Dodgers, took notice of the talent in the Negro Leagues. He also knew it would require

a special man to meet the challenges of being the first black man in the Major Leagues. After

sifting through hundreds of black player biographies, Branch Rickey decided that Jackie

Robinson was the right man. With the stroke of a pen, Jackie terminated his Negro League career

and signed with the Dodgers’ organization on August 19, 1945. Jackie Robinson had exceptional

talent and athletic ability. However, his leadership traits are what made Branch Ricky’s

experiment a success, crushing racial barriers, and forever changing the world of sports. Jackie

Robinson understood four key elements crucial to effective leadership. He knew that to do

something great, you had to be willing to stand-alone. He understood that often you win by not

fighting back. The support of others is crucial. Lastly and most importantly, Jackie Robinson

understood that possessing a conviction of “why” you are doing something makes the “what”

you are doing possible.

Great leaders must be willing to stand alone to make a difference. Jackie Robinson paid a

significant price for standing alone, but he decided to stop being a spectator and step up to

accomplish a greater purpose. He was willing to become part of Branch Rickey’s noble

experiment. Sukeforth, the scout who recruited Jackie, recalled Jackie’s first meeting with

Branch Ricky. "He just stared and stared; that's what he did with Robinson—stared at him as if

he were trying to get inside the man (Rampersad 126).” At this meeting, Rickey made it clear

that Jackie’s baseball skills were only a small part of the challenge. Jackie had to be willing to

accept the physical, verbal, and physiological abuse on a daily basis. This abuse would occur on

and off the field from fans, opponents, and even his teammates. Arnold Rampersad, author of

Jackie Robinson: A Biography writes the following when describing this meeting:

"I know you're a good ballplayer," Rickey barked. "What I don't know is whether you

have the guts." Jack started to answer hotly, in defense of his manhood, when Rickey

explained, "I am looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." Caught up

now in the drama, Rickey stripped off his coat and acted out a variety of parts that

portrayed examples of an offended Jim Crow. Now he was a white hotel clerk rudely

refusing Jack accommodations; now a supercilious white waiter in a restaurant; now a

brutish railroad conductor; now a vengeful base runner, vindictive spike flashing in the

sun, sliding into Jack’s black flesh—“How do you like that, nigger boy.” (126-127)

Branch Rickey did all of this to get into Jackie’s head. He emphasized that Jackie had to “turn

the other cheek.” The only way for Jackie Robinson to break down the barriers of baseball was to

adopt the leadership characteristics of Gandhi, who used active non-violence in India to break


From the moment Jackie Robinson arrived at spring training in Montreal, a minor league

team that is part of the Brooklyn Dodgers Organization, Jackie met adversity. The hotel did not

accept Jackie. Jackie’s fellow teammates did not accept him. During an inter-squad scrimmage,

the opposing pitcher intentionally threw the ball straight at Jackie's head. Jackie ducked, smiled,

and returned to the plate. The New York Daily News columnist, Jimmy Powers, wrote Jackie

"will not make the grade in the big leagues next year or the next if percentages mean anything,

Robinson is 1000 to 1 shot to make the grade (Rampersad 130).” The abuse came from all

directions. Jackie dug deep and displayed unconceivable guts and self-control. He defied the

odds and progressed to the major leagues. Arguably, the worst attack came once Jackie joined

the major league Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 22, 1947, the Dodgers returned home to Ebbets

Field for three games against the Philadelphia Phillies. Jackie Robinson, just ten days into his

major league career, recalls this day as “of all the unpleasant days in my life, brought me nearer

to cracking up than I ever had been (Rampersad 172)." At his first at-bat in the first inning, the

coach of the Phillies came onto the field and began taunting Jackie:

“Hey, nigger, why don’t you go back to the cotton field where you belong?”

“They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!”

“Hey, snowflake, which one of those white boys’ wives are you dating tonight?”

“We don’t want you here, nigger.”

“Go back to the bushes!” (Rampersad 172-173)

Unsurprisingly, the torment completely distressed Jackie and pushed him to the point of turning

and attacking the tormentor. Jackie recalled thinking, “To hell with the image of the patient black

freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout,

grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist. Then I

would walk away from all of it (Rampersad 172).” This attitude would be most anyone's natural

reaction. However, Jackie gathered all the self-control he could muster with the greater purpose

in mind. This day marked a turning point in Jackie’s ability to lead. As a result, Jackie’s

teammates began to see him not as a black man nor a talented athlete, but as a leader who

possessed raw guts and courage. Before their own eyes, Jackie became a leader who they could

respect, support and follow despite the odds against them as a team.

Jackie Robinson’s ability to endure continual abuse was only possible through the

support of others. Even leaders require support from those close to them, especially when facing

extreme opposition. From the start, Branch Rickey, being a wise man, realized Jackie could not

undertake this feat alone. One of Branch Rickey’s first questions at their initial meeting was

whether Jackie had a girl. Branch Rickey explained that the challenges ahead of him would

require a strong woman to support him. Almost immediately after his meeting with Branch

Rickey, Jackie called Rachel, his girlfriend, and asked her to marry him. Jackie knew she would

faithfully support him and share his conviction regarding racial injustice. Branch Rickey also

stood in Jackie’s corner. Mr. Rickey arranged for the newly married Mrs. Rachel Robinson to

accompany Jackie to spring training. She was the only wife allowed at spring training. She

provided the loving, quiet support Jackie needed while Mr. Rickey inspired the confidence and

fortitude Jackie needed. Branch Rickey was Jackie’s personal coach and cheerleader. Rachel

recalled, “Rickey would push and prod Jack: ‘Go after that pitch! Take a lead! Be bold! Make

them worry. Jack became very personal, very intimate with Rickey. It was paternal—not

paternalistic, put paternal. And it gave Jack deep support when he badly needed it (Rampersad

145).” Although Jackie appeared alone, defying all odds on the baseball diamond, the support

from Rachel and Mr. Rickey was his foundation. As mentioned, Jackie eventually earned the

respect of his teammates and the Brooklyn Dodgers Organization as a whole as he endured the

adversity. In time, his teammates and the organization became the underlying support structure

that lifted Jackie up as well as becoming the fortress that protected him so he could continue to

lead the nation through the racial divide. The organization made personal travel arrangement for

Jackie due to discrimination on public buses. They found homes that were willing to host Jackie

and his wife for away trips since most hotels would deny Jackie access and force him to stay in

dirty, dreadful places. The team even began to refuse to stay at places that denied access to

Jackie. When playing against the Pittsburg Pirates, the pitcher, Austin Muller, intentionally threw

the ball at Jackie’s head knocking him to the ground. The entire Dodgers team cleared the bench

and came to his defense. Wendell Smith, a black reporter wrote, Jackie was “definitely one of the

Dodgers. He is ‘one of the boys’ and treated that way as his teammates (182).” Pee Wee Reese, a

future Hall-of-Famer, and idol at the time, became one of Jackie’s closest friends. The story’s

exact details are uncertain, but upon playing near Reese’s home, in Cincinnati or Boston, the fans

began to yell racial slurs and insults at Jackie. Pee Wee Reese ran over to Jackie placing his arm

around him silencing the crowd. Without words, but with this simple gesture, Pee Wee Reese, in

essence, proclaimed, “this is my friend, he belongs here, and he is here to stay.” Jackie Robinson

stated in his recollection, “I will never forget it. I get all kinds of help from these fellows. I

wouldn’t be anywhere without it (Rampersad 183).”

Jackie Robinson’s leadership expanded as he graciously withstood adversity and as he

earned and subsequently received the respect of his teammates. However, his leadership would

have been fruitless without his strong, unwavering conviction that he was playing baseball for a

greater purpose. He knew deep within him “why” he was resisting the temptation to fight back

and that made the “what” possible. Arnold Rampersad, Author of Jackie Robinson: A Biography,

wrote, "Jackie had a strong sense of knowing who he was, of being unassailable, invulnerable,

especially where the color of his skin was concerned. He was satisfied with his constant anger at

injustice, although also satisfied that he could control it (132)." Jackie Robinson knew why

Branch Rickey’s experiment was so important; he believed in the endeavor; he was willing to

give blood, sweat, and tears for the cause. All great leaders have a conviction of why they are

doing something. This conviction is a key prerequisite for inspiring others to follow. Jackie

stated, “I had to do it for several reasons. For black youth, for my mother, for Rachel, for myself.

I had already begun to feel like I had to do it for Rickey (Rampersad 127).” Jackie was fighting a

war for equality. A war that would unleash humanity’s natural rights that should never be

infringed upon by anyone. Jackie’s deeply held conviction inspired others to follow. The tides

turned. On the national stage, people began to view Jackie as a man who was no different from

any other man. His skin was black, but its color was no indication of his talent or intelligence.

Jackie was a leader in the truest sense of the word. He had no stated position of authority. He

could not force others to follow. He inspired others to want to follow and consequently caused

them to germinate and then propagate the same convictions.

Jackie Robinson, inducted into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame in 1963, was a great baseball

player with tremendous ability. However, people remember him today because of his leadership

in the battle against discrimination. Four interconnected aspects of Jackie Robinson’s life force

enabled him to succeed in the battle against discrimination. Jackie possessed a deep conviction in

a cause greater than being the first black man playing the game of baseball on a white team. He

led the battle against all kinds of racial barriers. His mysterious, heartfelt persuasion empowered

him to stand alone at times, to not fight back when his flesh told him to retaliate, and to

eventually rally others to not only stand with him but to provide him with the support he needed

to continue the fight. That is true leadership. Jackie ultimately succeeded in making every boys’

dream of playing in the major leagues possible, regardless of the color of their skin. Now, every

year, all MLB players wear Jackie’s number 42 for one game as a remembrance of his sacrifice

and accomplishment. Number 42 is the only number retired in baseball. Former American

League President, Gene Budig, stated, “Jackie led America by example. He reminded our people

of what was right and what was wrong. I think it can be safely said that Jackie Robinson made

the United States a better nation.”

MIDN Matthew J. Miller
United States Merchant Marine Academy
Class of 2017
Marine Engineering and Shipyard Management

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