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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

April 15, 1947

We're halfway through the month of April and as we approach the third Tuesday Timeline of the month, I've come to realize that April 15 is a considerably dark day in modern day history.  There's a lot of events that took place that were absolute tragedies and some of these events caused much pain and devastation.

So, that's why I decided to choose a topic that was much happier - in contrast to all of the darkness associated with April 15.

Just a reminder to all of you reading this blog from the United States.  If you still have yet to file your tax papers, you might want to go and get those done now, because the due date is today.  Another reason to fear the fifteenth of April.

(Note to Canadians.  You have until the end of the month.  Our tax deadline is April 30 - which is actually the date that I was supposed to be born, but was eighteen days late.  My poor mother.)

Anyway, here's a list of all the events that took place on April 15.

1755 - Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language" is published in London

1802 - William Wordsworth is inspired to write the poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" after taking a walk with his sister and seeing a "long belt" of daffodills

1817 - The American School for the Deaf - the first school for deaf students - is opened in Hartford, Connecticut

1865 - President Abraham Lincoln succumbs to his injuries following being shot at Ford's Theatre by John Wilkes Booth the night before

1892 - General Electric is founded

1912 - The RMS Titanic sinks to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean just two hours and forty minutes after coming in contact with an iceberg; killing 1,517 of the 2,227 passengers and crew members aboard

1923 - Insulin becomes available to the general public for the first time as a method of controlling diabetes

1924 - Rand McNally publishes its very first road map

1927 - The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 commences

1933 - Bewitched actress Elizabeth Montgomery (d. 1995) is born in Los Angeles, California

1936 - The national airline of Ireland - Aer Lingus - is founded

1941 - The Belfast Blitz takes place - 200 bombers of the German Luftwaffe attack Belfast, Northern Ireland which results in the deaths of 1,000 people

1965 - The very first Ford Mustang rolls off the show room floor; will go on sale two days later

1982 - Singer/songwriter Billy Joel is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident in Long Island, New York

1984 - The first World Youth Day is celebrated in St. Peter's Square, Vatican City

1989 - 96 soccer fans lose their lives in the Hillsborough disaster after a large group of fans storm into the bleachers causing some people to become asphyxiated; that same day, the protests at Tianneman Square begin in the People's Republic of China

2001 - Joey Ramone - lead vocalist of the Ramones - dies of lymphoma at just 49 years of age

2013 - Two bombs detonate at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring 264

So, yeah...April 15 brought us a presidential assassination, a luxury ocean liner sinking, chaos at two sporting events, and the death of the lead singers of the Ramones.  What a really depressing day, wasn't it?

Maybe looking at the list of people celebrating birthdays today will shift the mood a little.  Happy birthday to
Roy Clark, Robert Walker Jr, Michael Tucci, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, Lois Chiles, Amy Wright, Emma Thompson, Linda Perry, Samantha Fox, Melissa Dye, Dara Torres, Ed O'Brien, Flex Alexander, Kate Harbour, Katy Hill, Jason Sehorn, Lou Romano, Danny Pino, Susan Ward, Seth Rogan, Emma Watson, Madeleine Martin, and Maisie Williams.

So, I think that for today's date, I'll be going back in time to a year which showed great change.  A year that focused on a major event in the world of sports.

An event that took place on April 15, 1947.

Now, I have a question for all of you out there.  How many of you have heard of the recent movie with the title of "42"?  It just came out a little over a year ago and it starred Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford.  Well, that film was quite good (minor historical inaccuracies aside), and it is easily considered to be one of the better films of 2013.  And it was based on the story that I have to tell you that happens to be associated with the date of the Tuesday Timeline.

For you see...on April 15, 1947, the colour lines that divided major league baseball for several decades were shattered when one man joined the team then known as the Brooklyn Dodgers.  And that this man would face so much harassment and so much bullying from both teammates and fans.  Yet despite all this, he continued to follow his dream of playing baseball and had a major league baseball career that anyone would be proud of.

This is the story of Jackie Robinson.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 in Cairo, Georgia.  He was the youngest of Jerry and Mallie Robinson's five children, and he was given the middle name of Roosevelt after President Theodore Roosevelt, who had passed away just three and a half weeks before Robinson was born.

Unfortunately, due to the colour of his skin, Robinson was excluded from many of the neighbourhood activities which included organized sports, and because of the frustration of being singled out for something that he couldn't change, Robinson ended up joining a gang.  Fortunately, he was talked into walking away from the gang by a friend, and was talked into pursuing athletic opportunities at school by his brothers Frank and Mack - the latter of which won a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics.  Robinson played many sports at the varsity level and actually became a four-letter man earning honours in football, basketball, track and field, and baseball.  He even won the junior boys tennis championship at the 1936 Pacific Coast Negro Tournament!  His athletic career continued after high school when he enrolled at Pasadena Junior College and played for the college's various teams - as one of the few black atheletes/students at the school!

But while he was a celebrated athlete at Pasadena Junior College, he was also developing a reputation of being difficult with authority figures who singled him out because he was black.  One such incident occurred in 1938, which saw Robinson receiving a two-year suspended sentence for vocally disputing the detention of a black friend by local police and getting arrested for intervening.  It certainly wasn't the first time Robinson would stand up against racism, and it certainly wouldn't be the last.

After the sudden death of his brother Frank, Jackie decided to attend school at UCLA to be closer to Frank's family, and while he didn't graduate from the school (he left school just shy of graduation), he did meet his future wife and continued to make athletic history by winning the NCAA Men's Track and Field Championship in the Long Jump in 1940.  He also attempted to play football on a semi-professional racially integrated team known as the Honolulu Bears, but when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December of that year, it put an end to his dream of playing professional football.

Well, that plus the fact that Robinson was drafted into service in 1942 and stayed for two years until the summer of 1944 - where something happened that caused Robinson to be discharged for good.  He had boarded an Army charter bus with the wife of a fellow officer and was ordered by the bus driver to move to the back of the bus (remember, before Rosa Parks sat down for racial equality, black people were forced to sit at the back of all buses).  Robinson refused to move, and at first, the bus driver backed down.  However, the driver summoned military police and when the bus reached the end of the line, Robinson was arrested and was set to be charged with several offences - some of which Robinson wasn't even guilty of.

In the end, Robinson was acquitted and obtained an honourable discharge from the Army in November 1944.  But the incident of the humiliating arrest never quite left Robinson's mind.  And it would be this event that would set forth the chain of events leading up to April 15, 1947.

In 1945, Robinson was given a written offer by the Kansas City Monarchs - a team within the Negro baseball league.  And Robinson accepted the offer which included a contract for $400 per month.  For that amount of money, how could he turn it down?

Problem was that his experience with the Monarchs was not as grand as he had hoped it would be.  He was frustrated by the team's penchant for gambling and he found the team extremely disorganized.  Nevertheless, he played 47 games for the team and honoured his contract.  Still, his real dream was to be signed to a Major League baseball team - a dream that many black baseball players had but never accomplished.  After all, during that time period, professional baseball was largely a white American sport.

That's not to say that Robinson didn't try.  When he got word that the Boston Red Sox were holding tryouts for black baseball players at Fenway Park, he jumped at the chance...only to find that the whole experience would not be pleasant.  When he was trying out for the team, he was peppered with racial slurs and epithets by people in the stands and by people on the field, and Robinson was so affected by it all that he left the tryouts feeling dejected and humiliated.

Still, although the Boston tryouts were considered to be a joke, there were other teams that took the idea of signing a black baseball player seriously. 

One of these teams were the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Then Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey scouted the Negro leagues in hopes of finding the right player to sign, and Robinson was his first pick from the very beginning...but before he made the commitment, he had to find out if Robinson could do something for him.  You see, racial tensions were still very high in the mid-1940s, and Rickey knew that if Robinson were signed, he would have to have a very thick skin to take the abuse, but not react to it.  Certainly, given Robinson's past history, this might have been seen as an impossibility...but Robinson agreed to the terms, and Rickey signed Robinson in late 1945.  Though the team he would join was the Montreal Royals.

In 1946, Robinson headed down to Daytona Beach, Florida to take part in Spring Training with the Montreal Royals, but given the fact that Florida was one of the most racially charged states at that time, the experience proved difficult for Robinson.  He wasn't allowed to stay at the same hotel as his team, events were turned down if they included Robinson or Johnny Wright - another black player that was signed to the Dodgers organization, games were cancelled, and stadiums were sealed shut.

Despite all this, Robinson made his debut at Daytona's Beach City Island Ballpark in March 1946 and became the first black Minor League player to play against a Major League team since the colour barrier was implemented in the 1880s.  And during the whole season, Robinson's performance improved with each game and he began earning a loyal fan base.  Sure, he was still subjected to racial abuse but he also ended up proving naysayers wrong.

This leads up to April 15, 1967 - when Robinson made his Major League debut at Ebbets Field at the age of 28.  There were over twenty-six thousand people in the stands - over half of them being of African-American origin!  At his first game, he didn't get any base hits, but walked and scored one run, with the Dodgers winning the game at a score of 5-3.  And, yes, the situation with Robinson being a part of the team did have some bad points.  The first year he played with the Dodgers, members of his own team had the opinion that they would rather sit out on games than play with Robinson, but the manager of the team made them see the error of their ways.  After all, Robinson was a hot commodity and he could see the financial benefits of having him on the team.  Once he reminded the other team members of that, they began to be more accepting of Robinson.

Of course, other baseball teams made their prejudices known - most notably the St. Louis Cardinals who threatened to strike if they had to face Robinson on the field.  But to the credit of the National League President Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, they put an end to all of that, stating that any players who refused to play ball with Robinson would get an automatic suspension.  And when Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman used the "N" word to slander Robinson, Rickey later stated that Chapman's comment did more good for the Dodgers than anything, as the Dodgers all unified together to stand by their teammate.

And soon enough, many people on the baseball diamond supported Robinson on the field - one such notable moment occurred when Robinson's teammate Pee Wee Reese put his arm around Robinson as he faced racial slurs before a game in Cincinnati.  Reese also uttered the famous phrase "You can hate a man for many reasons.  Color is not one of them". 

Yes, the date of April 15, 1947 was a significant one for the world of Major League Baseball.  And Jackie Robinson was right in the center of it all.  From the time he began as a player in 1947 to his retirement from the sport in 1956 he maintained a .311 batting average, managed to get 1,518 hits, scored 137 home runs, stole 197 bases, and was named the 1947 Rookie of the Year and was a six-time All-Star player for six consecutive years from 1949-1954.

Before his death on October 24, 1972 from a heart attack, his number "42" was officially retired, and since 1972, that number has never been used for any other baseball player since.  How is that for an everlasting memory?

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