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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Da Vinci notebook sells for over $5M


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Year
1980
Month Day
December 12

On December 12, 1980, American oil tycoon Armand Hammer pays $5,126,000 at auction for a notebook containing writings by the legendary artist Leonardo da Vinci.

The manuscript, written around 1508, was one of some 30 similar books da Vinci produced during his lifetime on a variety of subjects. It contained 72 loose pages featuring some 300 notes and detailed drawings, all relating to the common theme of water and how it moved. Experts have said that da Vinci drew on it to paint the background of his masterwork, the Mona Lisa. The text, written in brown ink and chalk, read from right to left, an example of da Vinci’s favored mirror-writing technique. The painter Giuseppi Ghezzi discovered the notebook in 1690 in a chest of papers belonging to Guglielmo della Porto, a 16th-century Milanese sculptor who had studied Leonardo’s work. In 1717, Thomas Coke, the first earl of Leicester, bought the manuscript and installed it among his impressive collection of art at his family estate in England.

More than two centuries later, the notebook–by now known as the Leicester Codex–showed up on the auction block at Christie’s in London when the current Lord Coke was forced to sell it to cover inheritance taxes on the estate and art collection. In the days before the sale, art experts and the press speculated that the notebook would go for $7 to $20 million. In fact, the bidding started at $1.4 million and lasted less than two minutes, as Hammer and at least two or three other bidders competed to raise the price $100,000 at a time. The $5.12 million price tag was the highest ever paid for a manuscript at that time; a copy of the legendary Gutenberg Bible had gone for only $2 million in 1978. “I’m very happy with the price. I expected to pay more,” Hammer said later. “There is no work of art in the world I wanted more than this.” Lord Coke, on the other hand, was only “reasonably happy” with the sale; he claimed the proceeds would not be sufficient to cover the taxes he owed.

Hammer, the president of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, renamed his prize the Hammer Codex and added it to his valuable collection of art. When Hammer died in 1990, he left the notebook and other works to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Several years later, the museum offered the manuscript for sale, claiming it was forced to take this action to cover legal costs incurred when the niece and sole heir of Hammer’s late wife, Frances, sued the estate claiming Hammer had cheated Frances out of her rightful share of his fortune. On November 11, 1994, the Hammer Codex was sold to an anonymous bidder–soon identified as Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft–at a New York auction for a new record high price of $30.8 million. Gates restored the title of Leicester Codex and has since loaned the manuscript to a number of museums for public display.

READ MORE: How Leonardo da Vinci’s Surprising Family Roots May Have Influenced His Work

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Millions stolen from JFK Airport in infamous ‘Lufthansa heist’


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Year
1978
Month Day
December 11

On December 11, 1978 half a dozen masked robbers raided the Lufthansa Airlines cargo building at JFK Airport in New York, making off with more than $5 million in cash ($21 million in today’s dollars) and almost $1 million in jewelry. To this day, the Lufthansa heist, as it is known, is considered one of the greatest in U.S. history.

The plan was dreamed up by Peter Gruenewald, a Lufthansa cargo worker at JFK Airport. Gruenewald knew that Lufthansa regularly flew large amounts of unmarked cash from Europe—the U.S. currency exchanged overseas by American tourists and servicemen—to JFK. Typically, this money would immediately be transferred to American banks via Brink’s trucks. However, delays sometimes caused the cash delivery to arrive after the last of the trucks had left for the day, which meant it was stored at the airport until the next business day—and vulnerable to theft.

Gruenewald took his plan to fellow cargo worker and friend Louis Werner, in the hopes of putting it in motion. Unfortunately for Gruenewald, Werner saw the robbery as an opportunity to get out from under a mountain of personal gambling debt and double-crossed his friend. He took Gruenewald’s plan to a big-time bookmaker in the area, Martin Krugman, who took the idea to his buddy, infamous mobster-turned-movie-consultant Henry Hill.

As depicted in the famous movie Goodfellas, Hill was part of a crew of gangsters run by James “Jimmy the Gent” Burke. After years of earning money through nefarious deeds, Jimmy’s crew had become closely associated with the Lucchese crime family, and had amassed a solid reputation in the seedy world of organized crime. Burke and Hill took over the planning for the robbery. Jimmy’s crew was very familiar with JFK. Whenever they needed easy cash, the airport was an easy mark. The crew regularly hijacked trucks from JFK, often taking two or three trucks per week from there for quick money. Whether they were filled with televisions, clothes or food, they knew how to move merchandise to make extra cash.

Burke and Hill assembled a team for the robbery and waited for the word from his inside man, Werner. At about 3:00 A.M. on December 11, a black van loaded with the masked men pulled up to Lufthansa’s storage area. The men entered the building while the getaway van was brought to the back. They burst in, wielding guns, rounding up the night-shift employees and handcuffing them in the break room. The gunmen forced a supervisor to open the 10-by-20 foot vault to avoid setting off alarms. The cash and jewels were loaded into the van, and the crew inconspicuously drove away.

The entire heist took little more than an hour.

Unfortunately, they didn’t exactly get away free and clear. Rather than take the van to get crushed in a mob-controlled junk yard the night of the robbery, getaway driver Parnell Steven “Stacks” Edwards got drunk and left it parked illegally on the street in Brooklyn, where it was found with his fingerprints and footprint in the interior. Burke decided to cut the ties between Edwards and his crew, and the driver became the first suspect in the crime to be murdered. As Burke got more and more paranoid—and greedy for a larger share of the copious amounts of cash taken in the heist—the dominos began to fall fairly quickly. Krugman was the next to go, disappearing on January 6, 1979. By the summer of that year, eight men associated with the robbery were dead or missing.

Unable to connect anything to Jimmy and Henry’s crew, and with mobster bodies piling up, the FBI turned its attention to the inside man—Louis Werner. With help from testimony from Gruenewald, Werner was convicted for his role in the heist, but refused to cooperate or give up his co-conspirators. It seemed the Bureau would never solve the case, or bring to justice those involved.

“These ‘goodfellas’ thought they had a license to steal, a license to kill and a license to do whatever they wanted,” said George Venizelos, FBI assistant director-in-charge, in the New York field office in a comment to Reuters.

The biggest break in the investigation finally came in the spring of 1980, when Hill was arrested on six drug-related counts. It wasn’t long before he had “flipped,” convinced by the FBI to testify against not only Burke, but Lucchese family underboss Paul Vario as well. Hill’s testimony led to Burke’s conviction on two separate counts—a basketball points-shaving scheme and an unrelated murder—and “Jimmy the Gent” died in prison in 1996. Vario was convicted of racketeering and died in prison in 1988.

Only a portion of the stolen money was ever recovered.

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Florida teen Trayvon Martin is shot and killed


On February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an African American teen walking home from a trip to a convenience store, is fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer patrolling the townhouse community of the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman later claimed to have shot the unarmed 17-year-old out of self-defense during a physical altercation. After police initially opted not to arrest Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, the case sparked protests and ignited national debates about racial profiling and self-defense laws. Zimmerman later was charged with second-degree murder; following a high-profile trial that riveted America, he was acquitted of the charges against him.

On February 26, Martin, a Miami high school student, was in Sanford visiting his father. Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, the teen was on his way back to the home of his father’s fiancée, after buying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of juice, when he was spotted by Zimmerman, a 28-year-old insurance-fraud investigator who was captain of the neighborhood patrol at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, which recently had experienced a series of break-ins and burglaries. Zimmerman called the non-emergency line of the Sanford police to report that Martin looked suspicious then ignored a police dispatcher’s advice not to follow the young man. Moments later, gunfire rang out. When officers arrived, Martin was dead at the scene. Zimmerman, who had a bloody nose and cuts on the back of his head, was questioned then released. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, and police chose not to arrest Zimmerman, who claimed to have acted in self-defense.

After Martin’s parents raised concerns about the police investigation into the death of their son, who had no criminal record, the case gained national attention. Protest rallies were held in cities nationwide, including New York City, where on March 21 hundreds of people gathered for the Million Hoodie March and demanded justice for Martin, who many believed Zimmerman had profiled as suspicious and threatening simply because the teen was black. Two days later, President Barack Obama said of the shooting: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” In addition to raising a national debate about race relations, the shooting drew attention to Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to use lethal force if they fear for their safety and does not require them to retreat from a dangerous situation, even when it’s possible to do so.

On April 11, 2012, following weeks of demonstrations, a special prosecutor appointed by Florida’s governor charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty and the case went to trial in June 2013. In court, the prosecution portrayed Zimmerman as a wannabe cop who had profiled Martin as a criminal, chased him down and fought him. Prosecutors also tried to poke holes in Zimmerman’s self-defense claim by pointing to inconsistencies in his statements to the police. Defense attorneys for Zimmerman, who did not take the stand, contended he only shot Martin after the teen attacked him. On July 13, after deliberating for 16 hours over two days, a jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty.

In November 2013, the city of Sanford announced new rules forbidding volunteers in its neighborhood watch program from carrying guns and pursuing suspects.

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Dalai Lama begins exile

Year
1959
Month Day
March 31

The Dalai Lama, fleeing the Chinese suppression of a national uprising in Tibet, crosses the border into India, where he is granted political asylum.

Born in Taktser, China, as Tensin Gyatso, he was designated the 14th Dalai Lama in 1940, a position that eventually made him the religious and political leader of Tibet. At the beginning of the 20th century, Tibet increasingly came under Chinese control, and in 1950 communist China invaded the country. One year later, a Tibetan-Chinese agreement was signed in which the nation became a “national autonomous region” of China, supposedly under the traditional rule of the Dalai Lama but actually under the control of a Chinese communist commission. The highly religious people of Tibet, who practice a unique form of Buddhism, suffered under communist China’s anti-religious legislation.

After years of scattered protests, a full-scale revolt broke out in March 1959, and the Dalai Lama was forced to flee as the uprising was crushed by Chinese troops. On March 31, 1959, he began a permanent exile in India, settling at Dharamsala in Punjab, where he established a democratically based shadow Tibetan government. Back in Tibet, the Chinese adopted brutal repressive measures against the Tibetans, provoking charges from the Dalai Lama of genocide. With the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China, the Chinese suppression of Tibetan Buddhism escalated, and practice of the religion was banned and thousands of monasteries were destroyed.

Although the ban was lifted in 1976, protests in Tibet continued, and the exiled Dalai Lama won widespread international support for the Tibetan independence movement. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his nonviolent campaign to end the Chinese domination of Tibet.

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Puccini’s La bohème premieres in Turin, Italy


Year
1896
Month Day
February 01

By the time the first of his three career-defining operas had its premiere, Giacomo Puccini was no longer living a life of impoverished artistic struggle. His previous opera, Manon Gascaut, had made his name in the world of Italian opera, and, more important, it had earned him a significant advance on his next work. With his debts repaid and a country villa acquired, Puccini was no longer a starving artist, but rather an up-and-coming star embraced by the artistic establishment. It was, perhaps, the perfect vantage point from which to create a work that so famously romanticizes the passionate struggles of the artistic class: La Bohème, which was performed for the very first time on February 1, 1896, at the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy.

The libretto of La Bohème was based on the immensely popular Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, Henri Murger’s 1845 collection of stories depicting the lives and loves of a group of young Parisian “Bohemians”—a label that Murger’s work helped popularize. (The label refers to the supposed geographic origins of the Gypsies, whose itinerant, out-of-the-mainstream ways seemed an apt comparison to the alternative lifestyles being led by the growing class of artist-types living in Europe’s urban centers.) From Murger’s stories, Puccini drew his cast of characters: Colline, the philosopher; Rodolfo, the poet; Marcello, the painter; Schaunard, the musician; and Marcello and Rodolfo’s respective love interests, the singer Musetta and the doomed seamstress Mimì.

In choosing to write La Bohème, Puccini was choosing to involve himself in his own real-life drama. Puccini’s friend, the composer Ruggero Leoncavallo, was working on an opera of his own, also based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème and also called La Bohème. Puccini’s pursuit of the project cost him his friendship with Leoncavallo, who is nevertheless famous for his 1892 opera Pagliacci, but whose own La Bohème, completed one year after Puccini’s, is now almost never performed. Puccini’s La Bohème, on the other hand, is second on the list of the world’s most-performed operas, behind only his own Madama Butterfly, the third of his acknowledged masterworks (Tosca being the second). Even those who are not opera fans may be more familiar with La Bohème than they realize; Puccini’s opera acted as inspiration and source material for the late Jonathan Larson in creating the Broadway smash Rent.

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Fleetwood Mac reunites to play “Don’t Stop” at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball


Year
1993
Month Day
January 19

On January 19, 1993, the band Fleetwood Mac reunites to perform at the recently elected U.S. President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural gala.

Fleetwood Mac had faced much intra-band squabbling since their 1970s heyday, why they released one of the biggest albums of all time—Rumours—and a string of decade-defining hits like “Landslide,” “Rhiannon,” “Say You Love Me” and “Go Your Own Way.” And then, of course, there was “Don’t Stop” (as in “thinking about tomorrow”), which was candidate Bill Clinton’s unofficial theme song during the 1992 presidential campaign.

Along with Truman’s “I’m Just Wild About Harry,” Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike” and Ross Perot’s “Crazy,” Clinton’s “Don’t Stop” can certainly be placed within the catchy-and-memorable subset of Presidential campaign songs—in contrast to, say, “Buckle Down with Nixon,”  “Get on a Raft with Taft” and “Huzzah for Madison.” Clinton’s theme song may have lacked specificity regarding his political agenda, but it had a good beat, a warm vibe and a chorus that audiences could sing along to. Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 recording of “Don’t Stop” played in a seemingly endless loop from the night of Clinton’s nomination at the 1992 Democratic National Convention that previous summer through to election night in November, so that by the time January rolled around, the mere playing of the record would have seemed a disappointing way to end the evening of the inaugural ball.

And so the Clinton transition team sprang into action and accomplished a political feat that certainly seemed to bode well for the new president’s ambitious plans to bring peace and stability to Haiti and overhaul the nation’s health-care system. It had been more than five years since Lindsay Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks had shared a stage, but in a true coup of diplomacy, the Clinton team convinced the entire Rumours-era lineup of Fleetwood Mac to reunite for a truly historic live performance of “Don’t Stop” on this day in 1993.

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Black music gets whitewashed, as Georgia Gibbs hits the pop charts with “The Wallflower (Dance With Me, Henry)”

Year
1955
Month Day
March 26

For its time, the mid-1950s, the lyrical phrase “You got to roll with me, Henry” was considered risqué just as the very label “rock and roll” was understood to have a sexual connotation. The line comes from an Etta James record originally called “Roll With Me Henry” and later renamed “The Wallflower.” Already a smash hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart, it went on to become a pop hit in the spring of 1955, but not for Etta James. Re-recorded with “toned-down” lyrics by the white pop singer Georgia Gibbs, “Dance With Me Henry (Wallflower)” entered the pop charts on March 26, 1955, setting off a dubious trend known as “whitewashing.”

In addition to replacing “Roll” with “Dance,” the lyrics of the Georgia Gibbs version omitted lines like “If you want romancin/You better learn some dancin,’” but its most important change was more subtle. Even in an era when radio audiences rarely saw the faces of the singers they listened to, the rhythmic and vocal style of the Georgia Gibbs record made it as obviously white as the Etta James record was black. And while many Americans might have preferred the Etta James version to the Georgia Gibbs cover had they heard the two in succession, they would rarely have the opportunity to do so. Pop radio was almost exclusively white radio in 1955 America, and middle-of-the-road artists like Nat “King” Cole and the Ink Spots were rare exceptions to this rule.

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Soviets agree to withdraw from Afghanistan

Year
1988
Month Day
April 14

Representatives of the USSR, Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan sign an agreement calling for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan. In exchange for an end to the disputed Soviet occupation, the United States agreed to end its arms support for the Afghan anti-Soviet factions, and Afghanistan and Pakistan agreed not to interfere in each other’s affairs.

In 1978, a Soviet-backed coup in Afghanistan installed a new communist government under Nur Mohammad Taraki. However, in 1979, a second coup toppled Taraki’s government in favor of Hafizullah Amin, a Muslim leader less favorable to the Soviets. In December 1979, Soviet tanks and troops invaded Afghanistan, and Amin was murdered in a Soviet-backed coup. Babrak Karmal, a product of the KGB, was installed in his place.

Despite early gains, the Soviet army met with unanticipated resistance from Muslim guerrillas, who launched a jihad, or “holy war,” against the foreign atheists. Armed by the United States, Britain, China and several Muslim nations, the muhajadeen, or “holy warriors,” inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians. In the USSR, the Red Army’s failure to suppress the guerrillas, and the high cost of the war in Russian lives and resources, caused significant discord in the Communist Party and Soviet society. In April 1988, after years of stalemate, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a peace accord with Afghanistan. In February 1989, the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, where civil war continued until the Taliban’s seizure of power in the late 1990s.

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United States and France conclude the Louisiana Purchase

Year
1803
Month Day
April 30

On April 30, 1803, representatives of the United States and Napoleonic France conclude negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase, a massive land sale that doubles the size of the young American republic. What was known as Louisiana Territory comprised most of modern-day United States between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains, with the exceptions of Texas, parts of New Mexico, and other pockets of land already controlled by the United States. A formal treaty for the Louisiana Purchase, antedated to April 30, was signed two days later.

READ MORE: Why France Sold the Louisiana Purchase to the US 

Beginning in the 17th century, France explored the Mississippi River valley and established scattered settlements in the region. By the middle of the 18th century, France controlled more of the modern United States than any other European power: from New Orleans northeast to the Great Lakes and northwest to modern-day Montana. In 1762, during the French and Indian War, France ceded its America territory west of the Mississippi River to Spain and in 1763 transferred nearly all of its remaining North American holdings to Great Britain. Spain, no longer a dominant European power, did little to develop Louisiana Territory during the next three decades. In 1796, Spain allied itself with France, leading Britain to use its powerful navy to cut off Spain from America.

In 1801, Spain signed a secret treaty with France to return Louisiana Territory to France. Reports of the retrocession caused considerable uneasiness in the United States. Since the late 1780s, Americans had been moving westward into the Ohio and Tennessee River valleys, and these settlers were highly dependent on free access to the Mississippi River and the strategic port of New Orleans. U.S. officials feared that France, resurgent under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, would soon seek to dominate the Mississippi River and access to the Gulf of Mexico. In a letter to Robert Livingston, the U.S. minister to France, President Thomas Jefferson stated, “The day that France takes possession of New Orleans…we must marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” Livingston was ordered to negotiate with French minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand for the purchase of New Orleans.

France was slow in taking control of Louisiana, but in 1802 Spanish authorities, apparently acting under French orders, revoked a U.S.-Spanish treaty that granted Americans the right to store goods in New Orleans. In response, President Jefferson sent future president James Monroe to Paris to aid Livingston in the New Orleans purchase talks. On April 11, 1803, the day before Monroe’s arrival, Talleyrand asked a surprised Livingston what the United States would give for all of Louisiana Territory. It is believed that the failure of France to put down a slave revolution in Haiti, the impending war with Great Britain and probable Royal Navy blockade of France, and financial difficulties may all have prompted Napoleon to offer Louisiana for sale to the United States.

READ MORE: 8 Things You May Not Know About the Louisiana Purchase 

Negotiations moved swiftly, and at the end of April the U.S. envoys agreed to pay $11,250,000 and assumed claims of its citizens against France in the amount of $3,750,000. In exchange, the United States acquired the vast domain of Louisiana Territory, some 828,000 square miles of land. In October, Congress ratified the purchase, and in December 1803 France formally transferred authority over the region to the United States. The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory for the bargain price of less than three cents an acre was Thomas Jefferson’s most notable achievement as president. American expansion westward into the new lands began immediately, and in 1804 a territorial government was established. On April 30, 1812, exactly nine years after the Louisiana Purchase agreement was made, the first of 13 states to be carved from the territory–Louisiana–was admitted into the Union as the 18th U.S. state.

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