Jelani Scott | Sports Editor
Legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson is widely known as a pioneer in the world of sports for his pivotal role in integrating Major League Baseball when he became the first African-American to play in the league on April 15, 1947. His professional debut made it possible for players like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr., among many others, to earn a living playing a sport they love on the biggest stage in the world and, every year, we celebrate this fact during Black History Month.
But many are unaware that Robinson’s influence extended well beyond the realm of baseball. Over the years, another one of number 42’s accomplishment has gone largely unnoticed and, had it not been for him being the first (once again) to impact another major industry in a big way, names like Robert L Johnson and Cathy Hughes may not be known today.
On this day, 54 years ago, prior to the beginning of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers’ training camp, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) hired Robinson in Manhattan, New York. Robinson, who had just turned 33 on January 31, embarked on yet another ground-breaking endeavor that would affect not only mass media but also civil rights.
“I have had to realize that my baseball days will one day be over and, therefore, I have been thinking about a new turning point. This is it,” said Robinson shortly after the hiring.
He was appointed as the director of community activities for two of the network’s flagship stations, WNBC (Radio) and WNBT (TV). As highlighted in “Jackie Robinson: A Biography,” written by biographer and literary critic Arnold Rampersad of Trinidad and Tobago, the contract was for two years and was considered to be “unique in the field of broadcasting”.
Despite Robinson’s ethnicity playing a big role in his appointment, as Rampersad noted, his status as the first African-American executive of a major network further solidified his already prominent place in American history.
Robinson’s duties during his tenure with entertainment juggernaut included both on- and off-air responsibilities. In addition to being featured on the radio and TV, he was in charge of supervising the development of youth programs, particularly those that involved sports.
He would work with organizations such as the YMCA, Police Athletic League, the Catholic Youth Organization and the Boy Scouts, among others, to achieve these goals. Robinson’s primary focus was to also “combat juvenile delinquency and other social service activities,” as Rampersad mentioned in his book.
Ted Cott, the general manager of the stations, said, at the time, that Robinson’s position was “another trailblazing experience” that would link the network to “the more than one million negroes” in the Big Apple.
A couple months later, on December 1, Robinson made headlines in the New York Times for his comments about the country’s biggest professional sports team, the New York Yankees. Robinson was featured on the NBC TV program, “Youth Wants to Know”, and was asked if he thought the team was prejudiced and he said “Yes.”
He went onto say, “I think the members of the Yankee team are fine sportsmen and wonderful gentlemen but there isn’t a single Negro on the team now and there are very few in the entire Yankee farm system.”
In 1953, “The Crisis”, the official magazine of the NAACP, wrote about one of the projects accredited to Robinson: he was in charge of providing record players and recorded music for charitable organizations in New York City and its surrounding areas.
Robinson’s fearlessness, strength and determination allowed him to break several barriers in his lifetime and it is important that he is acknowledged for all of his accomplishments. His exploits in baseball were important in shaping the way the game is played today but his integrating behind-the-scenes of an entertainment industry that largely viewed African-Americans as the talent only is an under-appreciated, often-overlooked part of his legacy that deserves more attention.