Jackie Robinson, the Trailblazer, Ushered in an Amazing First Generation of African American Stars

Jackie Robinson’s number 42 has been retired from every team in all of Major League Baseball.* This was in acknowledgement that Robinson was a trailblazer who transcended a mere game or a sport. As the person who paid a steep price to break the color barrier of modern baseball, Robinson paved the way not only for the African American players who followed him but also for the many Latin and Latin-American players who were on the “wrong” side of the color barrier. After all, it must be remembered that star players like Orlando Cepeda and Luis Tiant had fathers who were at least as accomplished in baseball as they were but who nevertheless could not play in the Major Leagues because of the color barrier. It was not a language, culture or ethnic barrier; it was a color barrier.

Robinson endured taunts and insults, had grey hair by age 30 and probably sacrificed years off his life (he died at age 53) in order to usher in a golden age that featured the first generation of black Major League Baseball stars. The players who walked across the bridge Robinson built were born after World War I and before the end of World War II. Almost without exception they followed Robinson into the National League (NL). They had the talent, drive, will, commitment, energy and determination to show the world that they belonged at the highest echelon of their profession. In addition, they were disciplined on and off the field, which was extremely important in building upon Robinson’s legacy. The very cream that rose to the top all made the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who were these great players? (The statistics in this article are taken from baseball-reference.com).

Henry Aaron – “Hammerin’ Hank” belted 755 home runs, the most in history until the steroid era. He also established all-time marks for RBI and total bases. He played from 1954-1976, primarily with the Braves of Milwaukee and Atlanta. He hit .305 for his 23-year career, won two batting crowns and pounded over 3,500 hits. Aaron started his career in the Negro Leagues and was named to 23 Major League All Star squads. He joined the Hall of Fame in 1982.

Ernie Banks – established the single season home run mark for shortstops by clouting 47 round-trippers in 1958. Banks hit over 500 homers in his career and won the NL MVP award in consecutive years. He had a cheerful disposition and his enthusiasm for the game led him to often say “Let’s play two!” He spent his entire career with the Chicago Cubs and was called “Mr. Cub.” During the latter part of his career, Banks moved across the diamond to play a steady first base. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

Lou Brock – was a speedster who set Major League marks for stolen bases in a season and a career (both marks have since been broken by Rickey Henderson). Brock was traded from the Chicago Cubs to the St. Louis Cardinals and immediately helped the Cards to the 1964 World Series title. He also helped the Cards win another championship in 1967 and a pennant in 1968. He collected more than 3,000 hits and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1985.

Rod Carew – was a spray hitter who had an outstanding .328 lifetime batting mark. Carew won seven batting titles and hit over .300 for 15 consecutive years. He was an excellent bunter and a daring base runner, often stealing home. The American League (AL) Rookie of the Year in 1967, he also won the MVP award in 1977 when he blistered AL pitching for a .388 average and threatened to break the elusive .400 mark. Carew was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Roberto Clemente – the graceful right fielder played for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955-72. He won four NL batting titles, hit over .300 13 times and recorded 3,000 hits. Possessing a devastating and accurate throwing arm, Clemente was so respected that few base runners dared take liberties on him. He was the NL MVP in 1966 and the World Series MVP in 1971. He died in a plane crash on the final day of 1972 while flying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was mourned not only in his native Puerto Rico but throughout the baseball world. In 1973 he was elected to the Hall of Fame by a special vote that waved the five-year waiting period. Clemente is today often referred to as “the Jackie Robinson” of Latin baseball, and ironically both he and Jackie died in 1972 within a couple months of each other.

Bob Gibson – won over 250 games for the St. Louis Cardinals. Gibson used a blazing fastball and a wicked slider to tame NL hitters for 17 years. He won two Cy Young Awards and an MVP honor while posting a brilliant 2.91 career ERA. In 1968 Gibson turned in one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, fashioning a 22-9 record, an incredible 1.12 ERA, 13 shutouts and 268 strikeouts. That year he also set a World Series record by fanning 17 Detroit Tigers in game one. A clutch performer, Gibson once won seven consecutive World Series starts. He joined the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

Ferguson Jenkins – became Canada’s first Baseball Hall of Fame member when he was elected in 1991. Blessed with pinpoint control, Jenkins won 20 games or more six consecutive years and seven times in his career. He fanned over 3,000 batters and was a Cy Young Award winner in 1971. Most of his best seasons were spent with the Chicago Cubs.

Willie Mays – the “Say Hey Kid” could simply do it all. He was the quintessential five-tool player who could hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw. Mays played from 1951-73 and his career was mostly spent with the Giants of New York and San Francisco. Mays surpassed the 3,000-hit plateau, clouted 660 home runs and batted over .300 for his career. He was a Rookie of the Year, a two-time league MVP, an 11-time Gold Glove winner, and he was named to 24 All Star teams. His remarkable catch of a fly ball to center field during the 1954 World Series remains one of the greatest catches in baseball history. A stint in the military cost Mays almost two full seasons, reducing his career numbers and probably preventing him from making a run at Babe Ruth’s career home run mark. Legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell called Mays the best player he had ever seen, and Harwell witnessed baseball from 1930-2010. Mays was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1979.

Joe Morgan – called “Lit’l Joe” and “Sweet Pea” by fans and players alike, Morgan packed a tremendous wallop into a small frame. He won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975-76 and was an important cog in the Cincinnati Big Red Machine that won four pennants and two World Series in the 1970s. Morgan had a keen eye at the plate and often drew walks, but he generated enough power to establish a record for home runs by a second baseman (his record has since been broken). Morgan was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990.

Frank Robinson – one of the most underrated players in baseball history, Robinson is the only player to be named MVP in both leagues, winning the honor with Cincinnati in 1961 and Baltimore five years later. Robinson anchored the Orioles to four World Series appearances and two titles. When he retired he was fourth on the all-time home run list with 586. Robinson, no relation to Jackie, became a pioneer in his own right when he became the first African American to manage in the Major Leagues, taking the helm of the Cleveland Indians in 1975. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1982.

Willie Stargell – the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger crashed 475 home runs, many of the tape-measure variety, in a career stretching from 1962 to1982. He had his peak year in 1979 when he won a triple crown of sorts, sweeping the MVP awards for the regular season, NL playoffs and World Series. Stargell was known for great leadership on and off the field and he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1988.

*Because the retirement of Robinson’s number 42 was grandfathered into effect, those wearing the number at the time it was retired were allowed to keep the number for the remainder of their careers. Future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera has continued to wear the number, and he will be the last player to wear number 42 on a regular basis.



Hey, Jackie Robinson, We Love You! by Henry L. Haynes,Winston-Derek Publishers, 1997

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