Brooklyn Dodger broke the game’s color barrier 69 years ago this month
By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Special to The Times
Jackie Robinson, the first black to play major league baseball, was perhaps the second most powerful figure in the Civil Rights Movement behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one local baseball official says.
Friends of Rickwood chairman Gerald Watkins, who attended festivities in Birmingham last week to honor Robinson, believes the baseball great had an impact similar to the Civil Rights icon.
“Proving that people could play together did an awful lot to bring the races together,” Watkins said. “Once you play ball with someone, you develop a bond that can’t be developed in many other ways.”
Robinson broke the baseball color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers started him at first base on April 15, 1947.
The Birmingham Barons and neighboring Negro Southern League Museum last week celebrated Jackie Robinson Day with festivities that included all 26 Barons players, the manager and two coaches wearing Robinson’s No. 42 for their game against the Tennessee Smokies at Regions Field and a pregame showing on the scoreboard of a PBS documentary about Robinson.
Natasha Rogers, director of the Negro Southern League Museum, said it was only fitting to remember Robinson as he honed his skills in the Negro Leagues.
The museum hosted former players signing autographs and had performances by the Miles College band and singers from Tuscaloosa’s Alabama Choir School.
Clayton Sherrod, a renowned local chef who annually hosts a reunion for former Negro Leaguers, said Robinson’s historic step was not just about baseball. It was also about giving black people a chance “not only in baseball but in other areas,” he said.
Henry Elmore, a former Birmingham Black Baron, said Robinson was given the “right break and he was the right one to go up.”
“There were some guys who probably would have went up before him but they had bad attitudes,” he said. “Jackie had the right attitude.”
Robinson’s historic integration of the major leagues eventually signaled the end of the Negro Leagues. The Dodgers, by playing Robinson, ended the racial segregation that had relegated black players to the Negro Leagues since the 1880s.
But the move paved the way for players like Barons shortstop Marcus Lemon. The son of former major leaguer Chet Lemon played his first game for a minor league team that celebrated Jackie Robinson Day with No. 42 jerseys.
“It was a big deal for me,” he said. “It was a privilege. It really meant a lot to put on that number. To have the opportunity to be on the field with all these guys because of Jackie Robinson is just an honor. Obviously I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it wasn’t for him.”
The jerseys worn by the Barons Friday night were patterned after those used by the old Brooklyn Dodgers. The jerseys were auctioned off during the game as a fund-raiser for the Negro Southern League Museum.