Great Americans Series: The Story of Jackie Robinson

BY Taylor Rebhan

For a man who built so much, it’s ironic that Jackie Robinson is known best for what he broke. But when Brooklyn Dodger #42 took the field on April 15, 1947, breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier in the process, he not only introduced a new era in American history but began building an enduring legacy as a courageous leader and champion of equality.

Seventy years after he became a pioneer as one of the first African American baseball players to stand up to racism and start in the Major Leagues. Robinson’s legacy as a baseball icon and civil rights leader continues to inspire and create change far beyond the world of sports. We’re proud to celebrate that legacy with the limited-edition Jackie Robinson timepiece, the fifth installment in our Great Americans Series.

“Robinson is in what I call the ‘circle of immortals,’” says Gary Gillette, baseball historian, co-editor of The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia, and chair of the Detroit chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)*.

“Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson — everyone recognizes these names. Everyone understands what great players they were. Even non-baseball fans realize the significance of their lives and careers.”


Throughout Robinson’s historic career, the future Hall of Famer faced tremendous adversity from teammates, opponents, and fans who refused to accept the integration of black players in professional baseball.

In the face of racial epithets, threats, and forms of discrimination both on and off the field, Robinson consistently combatted injustice with dignity, honor, and, like the civil rights activists he inspired, a philosophy of nonviolence.

“Robinson had an iron will,” Gary says. “He was incredibly proud, and I think it’s his pride that allowed him to resist the temptation to strike back and to say ‘I’m better than this. I can endure this.’”


Time and time again, Robinson proved to be a strong, courageous leader of the budding Civil Rights Movement. Prior to his professional baseball career, as a member of the military, Robinson once refused to sit in the back of a bus. The event would lead to a court martial and, eventually, an honorable discharge. Demonstrations like these compelled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to later label Robinson a “sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

“The integration of baseball, in some ways, paved the way for the work that African-American civil rights leaders were doing,” Gary says. “It didn’t mean their work didn’t have to be done and that Martin Luther King and John Lewis and Rosa Parks weren’t heroes, but it was easier because of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball.”


Having won a Rookie of the Year award, a National League MVP award, and one World Series title, Robinson retired from baseball in 1957. But for the rest of his life, Robinson continued to use his platform as a prominent black athlete to promote justice and equality for all Americans. In the process, Robinson continued to break color barriers in other cultural spheres.

In 1957, Robinson became the first black vice president of a major corporation with coffee brand Chock full o’ Nuts. He joined ABC as the first black television analyst in 1965. And as a chair of the NAACP and a co-founder of Harlem’s Freedom National Bank, Robinson helped popularize the Civil Rights Movement throughout the ’50s and ’60s.

Today, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships and leadership development opportunities to students of color, carries on Robinson’s legacy of equality. In its work to advance the education of minority students, the foundation embodies the philosophy Robinson himself outlined in one of his best-known quotes: “A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Shinola’s Great Americans Series is a collection of limited-edition watches that honors those who’ve helped shape our culture and made a lasting mark on American history. Past honorees in the collection are Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, American poet Maya Angelou, and boxing icon Muhammad Ali.

The Jackie Robinson watch features a 42mm stainless steel chronograph with midnight blue dial and a #42 inscription in honor of his league-wide retired jersey number.

*SABR – Society for American Baseball Research. http://sabr.org/ (Baseball fans know this acronym well. You may have heard the term “sabermetrics.” It pertains to the statistical analysis of baseball).

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