On Feb. 10, 1945, Jackie and Rachel Robinson got married in a big church wedding in Los Angeles. Two weeks later they boarded a plane to a hostile and unfamiliar place: the Jim Crow South. They were headed to Daytona Beach, where Jackie’s new baseball team, the Montreal Royals, held spring training.
When the plane stopped in Pensacola for a connecting flight, the airline bumped the newlyweds. Jackie and Rachel realized that white passengers had taken their seats. They then had to board an empty bus to Daytona Beach, 450 miles away. The driver made them sit in the back.
Neither Jackie nor Rachel said anything. He’d made a promise. For two years, he would turn the other cheek.
Jackie played for the Royals throughout the 1946 season with Rachel at his side. She traveled with him on road trips, where they often couldn’t eat in restaurants with the team or stay in the same hotel. They were abused, isolated, insulted, threatened with death, alone. Alone, that is, except for each other.
How Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball has been told and retold, but there’s another side to the story – a love story.
Jackie and Rachel Robinson
Rachel Annetta Isum was born July 19, 1922 in South Los Angeles, to Charles and Zellee Issum. Charles, a disabled veteran, had worked as a bookbinder for the Los Angeles Times. Zellee had her own catering business. Rachel grew up in their strict Christian household, where she learned music, proper dress and good manners. From the age of 10 she worked for her mother. She also studied hard and took care of her father.
In the fall of 1940, Rachel entered UCLA, determined to finish a five-year nursing course. One day Rachel was hanging out at Kerckhoff Hall, where the black students congregated between classes. Then Jackie Robinson — football star, senior and big man on campus — walked in and created a stir.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born just outside of Cairo, Ga., on Jan. 31, 1919, the youngest of Jerry and Mallie Robinson’s five children. Jerry, a sharecropper with little education, deserted the family before Jackie turned two. His mother took him and his siblings to live with family in Pasadena.
Jackie’s older brothers encouraged him in athletics. Mack had won a silver medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics, a fraction of a second behind Jesse Owens in the 200 meter. Jackie took their advice and stood out in football, basketball, track and baseball at John Muir High School, then at Pasadena Junior College.
When his brother Frank died in a motorcycle accident, Jackie transferred to UCLA to be nearer Frank’s family. There he won varsity letters in four sports, starring on the football team.
That day at Kerckhoff Hall Rachel found him handsome, and she liked his smile and his quiet confidence. So she found out where he parked, and started parking her own car nearby and running into him.
Jackie began to notice the shy, pretty freshman. He kept talking about her to a friend. Finally the friend introduced them.
Jackie often wore a very white shirt to school, and Rachel wondered about it. Why would someone with such dark skin wear such white shirts? “He wore his color with such dignity and pride and confidence that after a little while I didn’t even think about it,” she later said. “He was never, ever ashamed of his color.”
Rachel brought Jackie home to meet the family. Her father didn’t like anyone who’d take away his little girl. Her mother, though, welcomed the young man who went to church, didn’t drink or smoke and had no other girlfriend. Jackie’s family liked Rachel, too.
Jackie made their status official when he took Rachel to a homecoming dance at the Los Angeles Biltmore. Rachel recalled it as uncomfortable, partly because they were black, partly because they were unfamiliar with each other, partly because Jackie wasn’t a very good dancer. He took her home and pecked her on the cheek. She had hoped for a real kiss.
She got more than a kiss from him that year – she got an engagement ring. But Rachel wanted to finish school and Jackie had uncertain job prospects. Professional athletics were closed to him, and he didn’t believe a college degree would help a black man’s career. So when a job opened as assistant athletic director with the National Youth Administration, he dropped out from UCLA in his last semester and took it.
He then played semipro football in Hawaii until he received a draft notice from the U.S Army. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was sent to Fort Hood — named after a Confederate general. And there his military career derailed.
One day Jackie boarded a military bus and the driver ordered him to the back. Jackie refused. At the end of the bus trip the driver had Jackie arrested. He was court-martialed on charges that included public drunkenness. The military court acquitted him on all counts.
The Course of True Love….
Because of the court martial, Jackie saw no combat. It also looked like he’d see no Rachel. Every Friday, he’d sent chocolates to her in San Francisco, where she pusued her clinical studies. But then somehow he thought she intended to join the Army, where other men would surround her. He told her not to. In response, she sent him back his engagement ring.
After his honorable discharge, Jackie went home to Pasadena. His mother told him to stop moping and call Rachel. He did. After their conversation he rushed to San Francisco with the ring.
Jackie still didn’t have much in the way of job prospects. He started playing baseball with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League. That meant filthy hotels, grueling bus trips and no contract.
The historic, three-hour meeting between Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey took place on August 28, 1945 in Rickey’s office. Rickey had been scouting black players for the Dodgers. He saw in Jackie a college-educated military veteran, a churchgoer and an outstanding ballplayer. Someone who could break the color line.
Jackie, for his part, thought Rickey wanted to sign him to a fictional all-black team called the Brooklyn Brown Bombers. Rickey had used the Brown Bombers as a pretense to find a black player for the Dodgers, someone like Jackie Robinson.
He stunned Jackie by asking him to sign a contract with the Dodgers, but under one condition. He’d have to passively accept the inevitable racist abuse for two years.
“I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey replied. “We can’t fight our way through this. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, virtually no newspapermen.”
Jackie agreed to Rickey’s conditions.
Then Rickey asked Jackie if he had a woman in his life. Jackie said he did. “Well, you’ll need her,” said Rickey.
Jackie went home to California where he and Rachel began to plan their wedding.
The New Rachel Robinson
After 18 days of marriage, Jackie went to work as an infielder for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers AAA farm team.
It was Jackie and Rachel Robinson against the world. Jackie couldn’t stay at the team hotels during spring training in the Deep South, or eat with the team in restaurants. So Rachel, the only wife with the team, traveled with him. There was no one else for him. There was no one for her, either. They only had each other.
In Daytona Beach, they couldn’t stay at the team hotel so they stayed in the home of a black family. When the team went to play Jacksonville, they found the ballpark locked. During the second inning of a game in Sanford, Police Chief Roy G. Williams walked onto the field and threatened to arrest Jackie if he didn’t leave.
Rachel came to all Jackie’s games. She watched pitchers throw at Jackie’s head, infielders spit in his face, opposing ballplayers taunt him from the dugout. She had to hear the death threats and read the hate mail.
“We moved to and from the ball park to home almost as one,” she told Sports Illustrated years later. ”We shared the work, the feelings, the stress and the irrationality of our seemingly defenseless position.”
Jackie thought of themselves as a team, so much so that when he talked about his play on the field he used the pronoun “we.”
Home as a Haven
They agreed to treat their home as a haven and to leave their anger and frustration at the door. Sometimes when Jackie left the ballpark angry, he went to the driving range and hit golf balls before coming home.
When spring training ended, they moved with the team to Montreal. The city turned out to be a blessed respite. When Rachel, then pregnant, went to look for apartments she expected rejection. Instead, landlords treated her like anyone else. Montreal’s baseball fans welcomed Jackie, who had a stellar season batting .349 with 66 RBIs and 40 stolen bases.
Late in the season, Dodgers executive Buzzie Bavasi watched a Royals’ game from a seat near Rachel Robinson. He told Branch Rickey, “If Jackie was smart enough to pick her as his wife, he’s the guy you want.”
Seven days before the 1947 season began, the Dodgers called up Jackie. The team had a number of Southern players who threatened to strike, until manager Leo Durocher threatened to trade them.
Though Jackie played second base, the Dodgers put him at first base in 1947 because opposing players couldn’t spike him as easily there. During an early-season game, Phillies Manager Ben Chapman led the team in hurling racist epithets at Jackie from the dugout.
Rachel Robinson attended every home game she could. “There was such an incredible amount of pressure, it might have driven two people apart,” she said. “But it had the opposite effect on us, it pushed us together.”
The abuse during the 1946 season started to take a toll. Jackie’s hair began to turn gray, his stomach troubled him and he couldn’t eat or sleep. Rachel understood. It “came from his not being able to fight back,” she said.
He overcame anxiety early in the season and played well, earning Rookie of the Year honors. The abuse began to draw the sympathy of his teammates. And he had the support of thousands of black fans in the stands.
Pee Wee Reese
Things started to change in 1948. Jackie wrote in his autobiography, I Never Had it Made, that something happened in Boston when the heckling seemed unbearable. Some of the players began taunting Pee Wee Reese, a Southerner playing with a black man.
“Pee Wee didn’t answer them. Without a glance in their direction, he left his position and walked over to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began talking to me.… The jeering stopped, and a close and lasting friendship began between Reese and me.”
“[He] began to experience the presence of real teammates, fans and community support,” wrote Rachel for the New York Times decades later. They bought a home in Queens, made friends and shared in the growth of their children, Jack, Sharon and David.
“Our relationship had reached a satisfying level of interdependence that promised higher ground of maturity,” Rachel wrote. “Our larger world began to sparkle. Blacks were entering opening doors, and in 1955 our underdog team became the champs.”
Not everything came up roses for the Robinsons, though. Their oldest child, Jack, Jr., had emotional problems and needed special education. They tried to buy a house in suburban Connecticut, but properties suddenly came off the market when the Robinsons made an offer. And Jackie suffered from diabetes.
They didn’t have a storybook marriage. But, wrote Jackie, “each of us has stood at the center of the other’s existence.” They had honored and loved each other and they never broke their marriage contract. “We wouldn’t trade a day of it — not the sorrows or joys — for all the gold in the world.”
In 1956, Branch Rickey traded Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants. He had been a World Series champion and a six-time All-Star. He would win entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. But Jackie, at 38, decided to retire.
In 1955, Jackie and Rachel Robinson built a house in the white Connecticut suburb of Stamford. One white family moved away, but Martin Luther King, Jr., came to visit. So did many other civil rights leaders, as Jack had gotten deeply involved in the movement. The Robinsons hosted annual concerts to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Jackie also started the Freedom National Bank in Harlem and a construction company to build low-income housing.
Rachel embarked on a new career as well – at first over Jackie’s objections. She got her master’s degree in psychiatric nursing at New York University, worked in mental institutions and taught at the Yale School of Nursing.
Her interest in psychiatric nursing probably stemmed from difficulties with their oldest child, Jack, Jr. Always suffering emotional problems, he dropped out of high school in his senior year. He enlisted in the Army, went to Vietnam and suffered shrapnel wounds in battle. Then he came home a drug addict.
Jackie blamed himself. “I was constantly going and coming home late in the evenings basically tired and feeling that my home and my family was basically secure,” he said in an interview. “And I think we probably neglected the needs of our own children.”
Jack, Jr., however, overcame his addiction and became a drug counselor. But at the age of 24 he died in a car accident on the Merritt Parkway, speeding on his way to his parents’ home. He had been planning a concert on their lawn to raise money for Daytop, the Seymour, Conn., rehabilitation center where he worked. David, the Robinsons’ youngest son, identified his brother’s body.
Rachel was attending a conference in Massachusetts. Jackie went to pick her up and take her home.
By then, diabetes had left Jackie nearly blind and with a heart condition. Sixteen months after his son’s death, he died of a heart attack, on Oct. 24, 1972. The Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke at his funeral service in Riverside Church before 2,500 people.
Rachel Robinson After Jackie
Rachel soldiered on afterward, guarding the legacy of her late husband. Soon after his death, she started the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which offers scholarships and mentoring to minority students.
She has received many awards, including a dozen doctorates. She was there in 1997 when Major League Baseball announced the retirement of Jackie’s number 42 throughout the entire league. In 2005, Rachel attended the dedication of the sculpture of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Jackie. In 2013, she came to the premier of the film 42 in Los Angeles, a biopic about Jackie’s life.
Brian Helgeland, the film’s writer and director, asked her what she thought of the film.
“I loved how much we kissed,” she said.
She now lives in Salem, Conn.
Image of Rachel Robinson By Kingkongphoto & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – RACHELLE ROBINSON, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74749818. This story updated in 2023.