Jackie Robinson breaks color barrier

Year
1947
Month Day
April 15

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, age 28, becomes the first African American player in Major League Baseball when he steps onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to compete for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson broke the color barrier in a sport that had been segregated for more than 50 years. Exactly 50 years later, on April 15, 1997, Robinson’s groundbreaking career was honored and his uniform number, 42, was retired from Major League Baseball by Commissioner Bud Selig in a ceremony attended by over 50,000 fans at New York City’s Shea Stadium. Robinson’s was the first-ever number retired by all teams in the league.

READ MORE: Jackie Robinson’s Battles for Equality On and Off the Baseball Field

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, to a family of sharecroppers. Growing up, he excelled at sports and attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was the first athlete to letter in four varsity sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. After financial difficulties forced Robinson to drop out of UCLA, he joined the army in 1942 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. After protesting instances of racial discrimination during his military service, Robinson was court-martialed in 1944. Ultimately, though, he was honorably discharged.

After the army, Robinson played for a season in the Negro American League. In 1946, he spent one season with the Canadian minor league team the Montreal Royals. In 1947, Robinson was called up to the Majors and soon became a star infielder and outfielder for the Dodgers, as well as the National League’s Rookie of the Year. In 1949, the right-hander was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player and league batting champ. Robinson played on the National League All-Star team from 1949 through 1954 and led the Dodgers to six National League pennants and one World Series, in 1955. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.

READ MORE: 11 Things You May Not Know About Jackie Robinson 

Despite his talent and success as a player, Robinson faced tremendous racial discrimination throughout his career, from baseball fans and some fellow players. Additionally, Jim Crow laws prevented Robinson from using the same hotels and restaurants as his teammates while playing in the South.

After retiring from baseball in 1957, Robinson became a businessman and civil rights activist. He died October 24, 1972, at age 53, in Stamford, Connecticut.

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Major League Baseball’s first All-Star Game is held

Year
1933
Month Day
July 06

On July 6, 1933, Major League Baseball’s first All-Star Game took place at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The brainchild of a determined sports editor, the event was designed to bolster the sport and improve its reputation during the darkest years of the Great Depression. Originally billed as a one-time “Game of the Century,” it has now become a permanent and much-loved fixture of the baseball season.

Between 1930 and 1933, attendance at major league baseball games, which had skyrocketed during the 1920s, plummeted 40 percent, while the average player’s salary fell by 25 percent. Fans who could still afford tickets migrated from the more expensive box seats to the bleachers, which cost 50 cents. Owners of baseball teams across the country economized by shrinking their rosters, firing their coaches and slashing wages. Many teams also experimented with discounts and other innovations designed to woo back fans, including free admission for women, grocery giveaways and the first night games in baseball history.

Surprisingly, the most enduring promotional event to emerge during this period—the midseason All-Star Game between the American and National Leagues—was the brainchild of several people with no direct connection to baseball. In 1933, Chicago hosted a World’s Fair known as the Century of Progress International Exposition, an event devised to celebrate the city’s centennial while cultivating a sense of optimism during the depths of the Depression. Mayor Edward Kelly, newly elected and intent on making the fair a success, approached Colonel Robert McCormick, the powerful publisher of the Chicago Tribune, with the idea of holding a major athletic event in conjunction with it.

McCormick turned the matter over to his sports editor, Arch Ward, who proposed a one-time “Game of the Century” that would pit the finest players of the American and National Leagues against each other at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. As an added twist, fans would have the opportunity to vote on the lineup. Ward was so certain the game would be a hit that he told McCormick to take any losses out of Ward’s own paycheck. With his boss on board, Ward made his case to the presidents of both leagues and the various team owners, assuring the skeptics among them that the event would help pull baseball out of its slump. By donating all proceeds to a charity for retired players, he argued, they could show the country that Major League Baseball was not, as some had suggested, embracing a culture of “decadence” while ordinary Americans suffered financial ruin. Eventually, the persuasive editor’s lobbying won over the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the game was set for July 6, 1933.

As the date drew near, Ward wrote story after story in the Tribune, hyping the game and encouraging the public to participate. Ballots were printed in 55 newspapers across the country, and fans cast several hundred thousand votes for their favorite players, with Babe Ruth drawing 100,000. Along with the Bambino, fans elected the likes of Lefty Grove, Jimmy Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin to the roster.

On July 6, 47,595 fans packed into Comiskey Park, where some of baseball’s most historic moments had taken place. This would be another. The game, which ended in a 4-2 victory by the American League, did not disappoint, thrilling the crowd with its star-studded roster, built-in drama and unprecedented matchups. Indeed, for many of the players, this was their first chance to meet and compete with their counterparts from the other league.

Arch Ward’s All-Star Game proved so popular that its organizers held another “midsummer classic” the following year. Since then, it has become an annual fixture of the baseball season, bringing together the sport’s most talented and beloved players every year with the exception of 1945, when it was cancelled due to wartime travel restrictions.

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Babe Ruth dies

Year
1948
Month Day
August 16

On August 16, 1948, baseball legend George Herman “Babe” Ruth dies from cancer in New York City. For two days following, his body lay in state at the main entrance to Yankee Stadium, and tens of thousands of people stood in line to pay their last respects. He was buried in Hawthorne, New York.

Ruth, who had a colorful personality and an unmistakable physical presence, began his major league career in Baltimore in 1914. That same year, he was traded to the Boston Red Sox and during the next five years proved himself to be a formidable left-handed pitcher and batter. In 1919, he was sold to the New York Yankees, where he played outfield to better exploit his phenomenal hitting talents. At a time when baseball was suffering through the disgrace of the Black Sox scandal, Ruth almost single-handedly salvaged the sport’s popularity, hitting a record 60 home runs in the 1927 season and leading the Yankees to seven pennants. Yankee Stadium, opened in 1923, came to be known as “the House that Ruth Built.”

However, the Babe also made headlines by his charitable actions, such as visiting sick children in hospitals. In 1935, he retired from baseball, having hit a record 714 home runs in his career. In 1946, Ruth was diagnosed with throat cancer, but doctors could do little. Early the next year, treatment ended. On June 13, 1948, a uniformed Ruth appeared at Yankee Stadium one last time to retire his number. On August 16, he died of cancer at the age of 53.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Babe Ruth 

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U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame elects first members


Year
1936
Month Day
January 29

On January 29, 1936, the U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame elects its first members in Cooperstown, New York: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson and Walter Johnson.

The Hall of Fame actually had its beginnings in 1935, when plans were made to build a museum devoted to baseball and its 100-year history. A private organization based in Cooperstown called the Clark Foundation thought that establishing the Baseball Hall of Fame in their city would help to reinvigorate the area’s Depression-ravaged economy by attracting tourists. To help sell the idea, the foundation advanced the idea that U.S. Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown. The story proved to be phony, but baseball officials, eager to capitalize on the marketing and publicity potential of a museum to honor the game’s greats, gave their support to the project anyway.

In preparation for the dedication of the Hall of Fame in 1939—thought by many to be the centennial of baseball—the Baseball Writers’ Association of America chose the five greatest superstars of the game as the first class to be inducted: Ty Cobb was the most productive hitter in history; Babe Ruth was both an ace pitcher and the greatest home-run hitter to play the game; Honus Wagner was a versatile star shortstop and batting champion; Christy Matthewson had more wins than any pitcher in National League history; and Walter Johnson was considered one of the most powerful pitchers to ever have taken the mound.

Today, with approximately 350,000 visitors per year, the Hall of Fame continues to be the hub of all things baseball. 

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Ted Williams becomes last player to hit .400

Year
1941
Month Day
September 28

On September 28, 1941, the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams plays a double-header against the Philadelphia Athletics on the last day of the regular season and gets six hits in eight trips to the plate, to boost his batting average to .406 and become the first player since Bill Terry in 1930 to hit .400. Williams, who spent his entire career with the Sox, played his final game exactly 19 years later, on September 28, 1960, at Boston’s Fenway Park and hit a home run in his last time at bat, for a career total of 521 homeruns.

Williams was born on August 30, 1918, in San Diego, and began his major league career with the Red Sox in 1939. 1941 marked Williams’ best season. In addition to his .406 batting average–no major league player since him has hit .400–the left fielder led the league with 37 homers, 135 runs and had a slugging average of .735. Also that season, Williams, whose nicknames included “The Splendid Splinter” and “The Thumper,” had an on-base percentage of .553, a record that remained unbroken for 61 years, until Barry Bonds achieved a percentage of .582 in 2002.

In 1942, Williams won the American League Triple Crown, for highest batting average and most RBIs and homeruns. He duplicated the feat in 1947. In 1946 and 1949, he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player and in June 1960, he became the fourth player in major league history to hit 500 homers. He was selected to the All-Star team 17 times.

Williams played his last game on September 28, 1960, and retired with a lifetime batting average of .344, a .483 career on-base percentage and 2,654 hits. His achievements are all the more impressive because his career was interrupted twice for military service: Williams was a Marine Corps pilot during World War II and the Korean War and as a result missed a total of nearly five seasons from baseball.

Williams, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, managed the Washington Senators (renamed the Texas Rangers in 1972) from 1969 to 1972. In 1984, the Boston Red Sox retired his uniform number (nine). Williams died of cardiac arrest at age 83 on July 5, 2002, in Florida. In a controversial move, his son sent his father’s body to be frozen at a cryonics laboratory.

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First televised Major League baseball game

Year
1939
Month Day
August 26

On August 26, 1939, the first televised Major League baseball game is broadcast on station W2XBS, the station that was to become WNBC-TV. Announcer Red Barber called the game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, New York.

At the time, television was still in its infancy. Regular programming did not yet exist, and very few people owned television sets—there were only about 400 in the New York area. Not until 1946 did regular network broadcasting catch on in the United States, and only in the mid-1950s did television sets become more common in the American household.

In 1939, the World’s Fair—which was being held in New York—became the catalyst for the historic broadcast. The television was one of the fair’s prize exhibits, and organizers believed that the Dodgers-Reds doubleheader on August 26 was the perfect event to showcase America’s grasp on the new technology.

By today’s standards, the video coverage was somewhat crude. There were only two stationary camera angles: The first was placed down the third base line to pick up infield throws to first, and the second was placed high above home plate to get an extensive view of the field. It was also difficult to capture fast-moving plays: Swinging bats looked like paper fans, and the ball was all but invisible during pitches and hits.

Nevertheless, the experiment was a success, driving interest in the development of television technology, particularly for sporting events. Though baseball owners were initially concerned that televising baseball would sap actual attendance, they soon warmed to the idea. In particular, they embraced the possibilities for revenue generation that came with increased exposure of the game, including the sale of rights to air certain teams or games and television advertising.

Today, televised sports is a multi-billion dollar industry, with technology that gives viewers an astounding amount of visual and audio detail. Cameras are now so precise that they can capture the way a ball changes shape when struck by a bat, and athletes are wired to pick up field-level and sideline conversation.

READ MORE: Who Invented Baseball? 

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Babe Ruth retires

Year
1935
Month Day
June 02

On June 2, 1935, Babe Ruth, one of the greatest players in the history of baseball, ends his Major League playing career after 22 seasons, 10 World Series and 714 home runs. The following year, Ruth, a larger-than-life figure whose name became synonymous with baseball, was one of the first five players inducted into the sport’s hall of fame.

George Herman Ruth was born February 6, 1895, into a poor family in Baltimore. As a child, he was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, a school run by Roman Catholic brothers, where he learned to play baseball and was a standout athlete. At 19, Ruth was signed by the Baltimore Orioles, then a Boston Red Sox minor league team. Ruth’s fellow teammates and the media began referring to him as team owner Jack Dunn’s newest “babe,” a nickname that stuck. Ruth would later acquire other nicknames, including “The Sultan of Swat” and “The Bambino.”

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Babe Ruth

Ruth made his Major League debut as a left-handed pitcher with the Red Sox in July 1914 and pitched 89 winning games for the team before 1920, when he was traded to the New York Yankees. After Ruth left Boston, in what became known as “the curse of the Bambino,” the Red Sox didn’t win another World Series until 2004. In New York, Ruth’s primary position changed to outfielder and he led the Yankees to seven American League pennants and four World Series victories. Ruth was a huge star in New York and attracted so many fans that the team was able to open a new stadium in 1923, Yankee Stadium, dubbed “The House That Ruth Built.”

The southpaw slugger’s final season, in 1935, was with the Boston Braves. He had joined the Braves with the hope that he’d become the team’s manager the next season. However, this dream never came to pass for a disappointed Ruth, who had a reputation for excessive drinking, gambling and womanizing.

Many of the records Ruth set remained in place for decades. His career homerun record stood until 1974, when it was broken by Hank Aaron. Ruth’s record of 60 homeruns in a single season (1927) of 154 games wasn’t bested until 1961, when Roger Maris knocked out 61 homers in an extended season of 162 games. The Sultan of Swat’s career slugging percentage of .690 remains the highest in Major League history.

Ruth died of throat cancer at age 53 on August 16, 1948, in New York City. His body lay in state at Yankee Stadium for two days and was visited by over 100,000 fans.

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Hank Aaron breaks Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record

Year
1974
Month Day
April 08

On April 8, 1974, Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves hits his 715th career home run, breaking Babe Ruth’s legendary record of 714 homers. A crowd of 53,775 people, the largest in the history of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, was with Aaron that night to cheer when he hit a 4th inning pitch off the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing. However, as Aaron was an African American who had received death threats and racist hate mail during his pursuit of one of baseball’s most distinguished records, the achievement was bittersweet.

Henry Louis Aaron Jr., born in Mobile, Alabama, on February 5, 1934, made his Major League debut in 1954 with the Milwaukee Braves, just seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier and became the first African American to play in the majors. Aaron, known as hard working and quiet, was the last Negro league player to also compete in the Major Leagues. In 1957, with characteristically little fanfare, Aaron, who primarily played right field, was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player as the Milwaukee Braves won the pennant. A few weeks later, his three home runs in the World Series helped his team triumph over the heavily favored New York Yankees. Although “Hammerin’ Hank” specialized in home runs, he was also an extremely dependable batter, and by the end of his career he held baseball’s career record for most runs batted in: 2,297.

Aaron spent his 23-year big league career with two organizations. He was with the Braves from 1954 to 1974—first in Milwaukee and then in Atlanta, when the franchise moved in 1966—and closed it out with two seasons back in Milwaukee for the Brewers. 

Aaron hung up his cleats in 1976 with 755 career home runs—a record that stood until 2007, when it was broken by controversial slugger Barry Bonds (Bonds admitted to using steroids in 2011). Aaron’s achievements didn’t end when his career did, though. He went on to become one of baseball’s first African American executives, with the Atlanta Braves, and a leading spokesperson for minority hiring. Hank Aaron was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

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New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle dies

Year
1995
Month Day
August 13

Former New York Yankees star Mickey Mantle dies of liver cancer at the age of 63. While “The Mick” patrolled center field and batted clean-up between 1951 and 1968, the Yankees won 12 American League pennants and seven World Series championships.

Mantle was born in Spavinaw, Oklahoma, on October 20, 1931. He grew up in nearby Commerce, and played baseball and football as a youth. With the help of his father, Mutt, and grandfather, Charlie, Mantle developed into a switch-hitter. Mutt pitched to Mantle right-handed and Charlie pitched to him left-handed every day after school. With the family’s tin barn as a backstop, Mantle perfected his swing, which his father helped model so it would be identical from either side of the plate. Mantle had natural speed and athleticism and gained strength working summers with his father in Oklahoma’s lead mines. “The Commerce Comet” eventually won a scholarship to play football for the University of Oklahoma. However, baseball was Mantle’s first love, so when the New York Yankees came calling, Mantle moved to the big city.

Mantle made his debut for the Yankees in 1951 at age 19, playing right field alongside aging center fielder Joe DiMaggio. That year, in Game 2 of the World Series, Willie Mays of the New York Giants hit a pop fly to short center, and Mantle sprinted toward the ball. DiMaggio called him off, and while slowing down, Mantle’s right shoe caught the rubber cover of a sprinkler head. “There was a sound like a tire blowing out, and my right knee collapsed,” Mantle remembered in his memoir, All My Octobers. Mantle returned the next season, but by then his blazing speed had begun to deteriorate, and he ran the bases with a limp for the rest of his career.

Still, Mantle dominated the American League for more than a decade. In 1956, he won the Triple Crown, leading his league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. His output was so great that he led both leagues in 1956, hitting .353 with 52 home runs and 130 runs batted in. He was also voted American League MVP that year, and again in 1957 and 1962. After years of brilliance, Mantle’s career began to decline by 1967, and he was forced to move to first base. The next season would be his last. Mantle was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1974 in his first year of eligibility.

Mantle’s father and son both died in their 30s, the result of Hodgkin’s disease. Mantle was sure the same fate would befall him, and joked he would have taken better care of himself if he knew he would live. In 1994, after years of alcoholism, Mantle was diagnosed with liver cancer, and urged his fans to take care of their health, saying “Don’t be like me.” Although he received a liver transplant, by then the cancer had spread to his lungs, and he died at just after 2 a.m. on August 13, 1995, at the Baylor University Cancer Center in Dallas.

At the time of his death Mantle held many of the records for World Series play, including most home runs (18), most RBIs (40) and most runs (42).

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Willie Mays breaks National League home run record

Year
1965
Month Day
May 04

On May 4, 1965, San Francisco Giants outfielder Willie Mays hits his 512th career home run to break Mel Ott’s National League record for home runs. Mays would finish his career with 660 home runs, good for third on the all-time list at the time of his retirement.

Willie Howard Mays was born May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama. The “Say Hey Kid” learned baseball from his father, who played semi-professionally with a team from his steel mill. Willie joined the steel mill team at age 14, and then began his professional career at 16 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Southern League. He played home games for the Barons from 1948 to 1950, skipping road trips during the school year so he could attend high school. Upon graduation he was signed by the New York Giants, and made his debut at the Polo Grounds on May 25, 1951. Mays went hitless in his first 12 at-bats, hitting his first big league homer in his 13th. That season, he was named Rookie of the Year and helped the Giants to the National League pennant.

In 1952, Mays was drafted into the Army. The Mays-less Giants barely missed the pennant in 1952, then felt his absence more acutely in 1953, when they finished the season with a 70-84 record. Upon his return in 1954, the Giants defeated the Cleveland Indians to win the World Series, during which Mays made what many fans consider to be the greatest catch in history. In Game 1, Indian first baseman Vic Wertz hit a fly ball to deep center field. Mays turned and ran, then caught the ball over his shoulder with his back to the infield, spinning and firing the ball back into the infield to keep the runners from advancing. When he was later asked about the play, Mays famously replied, “I don’t rank ‘em, I just catch ‘em.”

After more than 20 years with the Giants, first in New York and then in San Francisco (the team relocated), Mays was acquired by the New York Mets on May 11, 1972. He spent the next two seasons as a Met under former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra as manager. The team won the National League pennant in 1973, though by then, Mays’ skills had eroded, and he could not catch up to the fastballs he once deposited into bleachers on both coasts.

In addition to winning the National League MVP in 1954 and 1965, Mays played in 24 All-Star games, winning the All-Star MVP in 1963 and 1968. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1979. His base running, power, fielding, ability to hit for average and outstanding arm in the outfield made him the prototype “five-tool” player for whom baseball scouts search. Any argument over who deserves the title “greatest baseball player in history” has to include Willie Mays.

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