On April 15, 65 years ago, Jackie Robinson entered Major League Baseball with a bang. He would earn the first-ever MLB Rookie of the Year award that same year and go on two years later to win the MVP award in 1949 after racking up 124 RBIs and a .342 batting average (the first of six consecutive All-Star years where he would hit above .300). In both these pivotal seasons, his rookie year and his NL MVP season, he led the major leagues in stolen bases.
It is easy to remember his contribution to the integration of baseball, but at times we forget that this was a player who was productive. His lifetime batting average was .311, his lifetime on-base percentage was .409. He could run you out of the stadium, he could hit you out of the stadium. He was that good. And if you want to bring in relatively new statistics, his NL wins above replacement was ranked in the top 10 from 1948 to 1953, including two years when he was No. 1. He even walked nearly three times as often as he struck out.
Playing under the stress of being a pioneer for integration is one thing, but to be productive in the face of it is another. And often it gets lost that he didn't stop after his playing career was over.
The transition from player to former player brings every major leaguer to his knees at one point or another. Be it from the silence that now surrounds your thoughts, the seemingly instant emptiness from losing that access and connection to teammates, or the wayward search for what it is you are next qualified to do.
I have found it to be helpful to have a mentor, someone who has actually been through the transition and tested all of the theories on how to make it. Yet, when you look at the big picture, Jackie Robinson may be one of the best examples out there.
Given that his burden was considerably heavier than what today's player deals with, Robinson still took the world by storm. He approached life after the game with the same abandon by which he ran the bases. He entered the executive ranks with Chock full O'Nuts, serving as a vice president and director of personnel for starters.
But even as he worked in the front office of a rising and relevant corporation, he was pounding the streets for equality. He consistently wrote letters to key political figures and people of influence to press the importance of good citizenship. He was active in discussing and debating civil rights with all of the relevant leaders of the day from Malcolm X to Martin Luther King Jr. to Presidents Nixon and Kennedy and anyone with influence.
It was clear that he would not rest until he saw America live up to its great ideals of equality. He saw any place that had inequality and discrimination as a threat to freedom everywhere. So he came to fight about policies from Ethiopia to Brooklyn.
He also put his feet in entrepreneurship. He rallied to help establish the Freedom National Bank to give Harlem a financial beacon which would employ fair lending practices for blacks, which was not often the case from many of the mainstream banking institutions. It quickly became the largest black-owned bank in the state of New York.
Time and time again he rose to the challenge of defending the spirit of the tenets of our founding documents, and if those documents didn't say enough against injustice, he wanted to write new ones. His relentless pursuit for an America that lived up to its hopes was awe-inspiring and certainly explains how one man could change an American institution for all time.
In closing one letter to then Vice President Nixon, Robinson wrote in 1957: "I know that you realize that in the tasks that lie ahead all-freedom-loving Americans will want to share in achieving a society in which no man is penalized or favored solely because of his race, color, religion, or national origin."
And presidents responded to him in letter after letter, recognizing his importance and influence over so many people.
Upon his death in 1972, he left a legacy that every player aspires to leave: one that both creates memories of your playing time and has a sustainable impact from your contributions off the field. Robinson was ahead of his time in his ability to master both stages, and he did it with nobility and a dedicated belief in America's potential.