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Jackie Robinson, The Color Barrier, and Jazz

15 Apr

Today marks perhaps the most important anniversary in baseball history.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to suit up and play for a Major League Baseball team, breaking the color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson, despite overwhelming resistance and racial prejudice from many fans, opposing teams, and even teammates, ended up becoming one of the most beloved figures in the history of the game. Robinson was a Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player recipient, was an All-Star several times, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. In 1997, his number 42 was retired across all major league teams. Today and tomorrow (thanks in large part to the efforts of Seattle Mariner Ken Griffey Jr.), all players from all teams will wear the number 42 as their jersey number.

Jackie Robinson was also known for his involvement in civil rights. Inspired by the March on Washington, Jackie and his wife Rachel Robinson organized a jazz concert in 1963 on the lawn of their home in Connecticut to raise bail money for jailed civil rights protesters, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The first concert boasted jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dizzy Gillespie, and became an annual tradition. For many jazz musicians, it was a huge honor to play for the man who broke the baseball color barrier.

Jackie Robinson died in 1972, and the jazz concert became a annual fundraiser for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, becoming extremely popular. A college scholarship organization the JRF was designed to  provide four-year college grants as well as extensive mentoring and leadership development training to academically gifted minority students.  The Foundation, currently celebrating its 35th anniversary, has supported over 1,200 Scholars who have maintained a 97% graduation rate, more than twice the national average for minority students.

In 2006, the event moved to the west coast and became known as Jazz on the Grass, most recently taking place at the home of Oz and Lynn Scott in Sherman Oaks, California. Some of the most recent musicians who have donated their talents include Kenny Rankin and Brian Bromberg.

So today, baseball players and fans can thank Jackie for opening the door for so many great African American players to enhance the game of professional baseball. And years after his death, jazz musicians continue to show their gratitude, by performing and helping raise money for causes that continue to open new doors every day.

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