Feature   Know Your Military

Sports Heroes Who Served: Baseball Great Jackie Robinson Was WWII Soldier

Feb. 9, 2021 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Sports Heroes Who Served is a series that highlights the accomplishments of athletes who served in the U.S. military.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson — better known as Jackie Robinson — was born in Cairo, Georgia, on Jan. 31, 1919, the same month former President Theodore Roosevelt died. That's how he got his middle name.

Baseball great Jackie Robinson poses for a photo.
Jackie Robinson
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson in 1950.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 500626-O-ZZ999-001

In 1920, his father, a sharecropper, left the family. Robinson's mother and her six children moved to Pasadena, California, where she worked at a variety of jobs to support the family. But they lived in poverty.

In high school, Robinson played several sports at the varsity level and lettered in four of them: football, basketball, track and baseball.

In 1936, Robinson won the junior boys singles championship in the annual Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament and he also earned a spot on the Pomona, California, annual baseball tournament's all-star team, which included future Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Bob Lemon.

After graduating from Pasadena Junior College in 1939, he enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he became the first UCLA athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, football, track and basketball.

An athlete jumps high into the air.
Robinson Jump
Jackie Robinson does the long jump while he is a student at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1939.
Photo By: Maurice Terrell, from Library of Congress
VIRIN: 390626-O-ZZ999-001

During World War II in 1942, Robinson was drafted and assigned to a segregated Army cavalry unit in Fort Riley, Kansas. In January 1943, Robinson was commissioned a second lieutenant.

Robinson was then assigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he joined the 761st "Black Panthers" tank battalion. 

On July 6, 1944, Robinson boarded an Army bus. The driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus, but Robinson refused. The driver called the military police, who took Robinson into custody. He was subsequently court martialed, but he was acquitted.

After his acquittal, he was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he served as a coach for Army athletics until receiving an honorable discharge in November 1944.

A young man is dressed in a military uniform; the arm of someone saluting is seen in the foreground.
Robinson Salute
Jackie Robinson in his Army uniform is saluted by his brother Frank during a visit to his Pasadena, Calif., home in 1943.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 430626-O-ZZ999-001

In 1945, Robinson began playing baseball for Missouri's Kansas City Monarchs, one of the teams in the Negro leagues. About that time, Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began to scout the Negro leagues for talent. Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising Black players and interviewed him for a possible assignment on Brooklyn's International League farm club, the Montreal Royals.

During the interview, Rickey told Robinson that he'd have to be willing to withstand the inevitable racial abuse that would be directed at him because there were no Black players in Major League Baseball.

Soon after Robinson was onboard with the Dodgers, Rickey signed another Black baseball player, Johnny Wright, who happened to be a Navy veteran of World War II.

A baseball player, holding a bat, poses for a photo.
Robinson Swing
Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson prepares to swing his bat for a photo in 1954.
Photo By: Bob Sandberg, from Library of Congress
VIRIN: 540626-O-ZZ999-001

On April 15, 1947, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues where he played first baseman.

Robinson did experience a lot of hatred from fans and other baseball players who felt that Black players should not be allowed in Major League Baseball.

As a Brooklyn Dodger, Robinson was:

  • A six-time All-Star from 1949 to 1954.
  • A 1955 World Series champion.
  • MLB Rookie of the Year in 1947.

Some other interesting facts about the baseball legend include:

  • In 1950, Robinson played himself in the movie "The Jackie Robinson Story."
  • On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired Robinson's uniform number, 42.
  • On April 15, 1997, No. 42 was retired from all of MLB; Robinson is the only player to receive this honor.
  • From 1957 to 1964, Robinson was the vice president for personnel at Chock full o' Nuts, a coffee brand, making him the first Black person to serve as a vice president of a major U.S. corporation.

A No. 42 baseball jersey with the name Dodgers splashed across the front is on display in a museum case.
Dodgers No. 42
The Brooklyn Dodgers No. 42 jersey worn by baseball legend Jackie Robinson is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture in Washington.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 180626-O-ZZ999-001

Until Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, few Black players made it into baseball history. The first African-American baseball player in MLB was William Edward White, who played for the Providence Grays in 1879 in Providence, Rhode Island. Five years later, Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother, Weldy Walker, played for the Toledo, Ohio, Blue Stockings. 

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Photo By: DOD
VIRIN: 200706-D-ZZ999-903