Jackie Robinson's time in Kansas City helped to shape his legacy

Thursday is the civil rights icon's 100th birthday

Marc LaVoie
January 31, 2019 - 5:45 am

Getty Images-Keystone-Hulton Archive

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Kansas City, MO - On the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's birth, Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick reflects on Kansas City's role in shaping the young man who would break baseball's color barrier.

"When he was here he fell in love with everything that is iconic with Kansas City -- jazz and baseball," Kendrick said.

Longtime Kansas City Monarch and Hall of Fame pitcher Hilton Smith discovered Robinson in Fort Hood, Texas, when the young, multi-sport star out of UCLA was still in the Army.

The team's owner signed Robinson, sight unseen.

"Little did J.L. Wilkinson know he was signing the man who would ultimately put him out of business," Kendrick said. 

Robinson played in Kansas City in 1945, and stayed in a hotel at 18th and Vine.

Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey recognized Robinson's talent and, looking for the right man to end the so-called gentlemen's agreement that kept African Americans out of the majors, signed him to a contract.

Robinson played for the Montreal Royals in 1946, and on April 15, 1947, made his debut with the Dodgers.

The step Robinson took across the chalk foul line at Ebbets Field changed baseball, and America, forever.

"Robinson's breaking of the civil rights movement, it was the beginning of the civil rights movement," Kendrick said.

Robinson had to swallow his pride for years with the Dodgers, enduring racist taunts and sharpened spikes. That doesn't mean he was a pushover, however.

"There was nothing docile about Jackie Robinson," Kendrick said. "He was as fiery and feisty an individual as you will ever meet."

Kendrick argues that Robinson's burden for his race was even greater than his younger friend and collegue, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. 

"As great a leader as Dr. King was a legion of followers behind him," Kendrick said. "When Jackie Robinson stepped out on that field, ain't nobody there but Jackie, and he had to perform."

Robinson carried the fate of 21 million black people on his back, Kendrick said. Failure by Robinson would have meant failure for an entire race.

After baseball, Robinson carried on his outspoken fight for equality and civil rights. The stress of his baseball career may have taken a toll on his health. He suffered from heart disease and diabetes, and died in 1972 at the age of 53.

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