Of all athletes who played in any of the ‘four majors’ in North America (NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL), there may not be a more impressive character than Jackie Robinson – star of the Brooklyn Dodgers and first African-American to play in the majors. He had to deal with some unbelievably enraging circumstances to achieve the pinnacle of success. And how he persevered is a lesson for all entrepreneurs hoping to accomplish great things in their careers.
Pushed to the outskirts of society in the 1920s due to his color, Jackie Robinson grew up as you might expect in that era – he grew a chip on his shoulder for the way he was treated. He was a tough kid, loyal to his family and as he grew older his country as well, but didn’t take shit from anyone.
While serving in the military his strong moral compass and natural refusal to back down ended up getting him in unjustified trouble – he was court martialed by the military police and would have likely been imprisoned if it wasn’t for numerous witnesses testifying of his strong character.
Robinson’s character was built on strength and to never back down from a fight. That’s who he was, ingrained in his DNA. This trait can be very useful when pursuing lofty goals of any kind, but for Robinson to achieve greatness he would need to shut it off.
Branch Rickey was an innovative manager for the Brooklyn Dodgers who spent his career transforming the game of baseball. He introduced helmets, batting cages, pitching machines and more. And he badly wanted to bring colored players into the majors, not simply to obtain talent and make a run for the championship, but because it was morally right. Rickey was a man of deep faith…
In order to successfully bring the first black player into the league, however, more than talent Rickey knew it would take a man with amazing selflessness and the ability to suppress all emotions publicly. Rickey knew that if he were to bring a black player onto the Dodgers’ squad, thousands of people would do everything they could to see it fail, ruining his career in the process. Even the slightest emotional outburst from the first black player in the majors and it would be plastered on the front page of every newspaper across the country, followed quickly by the banishment of blacks in the majors – killing Rickey’s (and eventually Robinson’s) dream.
So with that knowledge, Rickey not only had to find a black player with enough talent to standout in the majors (bear in mind blacks weren’t trained as thoroughly in baseball as white players growing up), he needed a man with the ability to keep his emotions in check while being abused — both physically and mentally — when he stepped onto the field. This was a tall order indeed. Rickey sent scouts nationwide and spent countless hours trying to find his man for the job. Needless to say, he found Jackie Robinson who, according to many accounts, wasn’t the most talented black player to choose from; but Rickey believed he had the best character for the job.
Unbeknownst to Rickey, Jackie, as a young boy and man, often was in the middle of hostilities, refusing to back down from a fight if need be.
When the two first met, Rickey informed Jackie that this opportunity was far greater than he. It was about more than baseball. This was a historic human rights opportunity to be a part of. In order for it to work, however, Jackie would be exposed to the harshest of abuse, shaming and outright evil, and he could never show any emotion. Eric Metaxas writes in his book 7 Men (highly recommend reading) that “According to Rickey, not only would Robinson have to tolerate such abuse, but he would need to be almost superhuman and to commit himself to never, ever hit back. This was at the heart of the whole enterprise. If Jackie could promise that, then he and Rickey could make it work. They could open the doors for other black players and change the game forever.”
Larry Schwartz recounted their first conversation:
Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
That’s hard for anyone to accept, never mind a guy who took pride in never backing down from a threat. But Robinson accepted the offer as he immediately grasped the significance of this opportunity… this was a shot at greatness.
Immediately upon joining the Brooklyn Dodgers the abuse began. It was disgusting, and came from all angles – fans, other players, the media, you name it. I won’t recount the severity of what Robinson faced, but a lesser man likely would have been driven into a state of constant rage and aggression, which would have killed the dream he and Rickey shared.
The lesson to be learned from Jackie Robinson, applicable for entrepreneurs, is to always keep your emotions in check. Outbursts lead to regrets and missed opportunity. Being able to stay calm when it’s all on the line is paramount to success. Emotions are your most powerful driving force, but keeping them to yourself when competing, be it in business or sports, must be a top priority.
Little-known fact: Jackie Robinson’s middle name was Roosevelt. His mother named him after the beloved Republican Teddy Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States and staunch supporter of African-American civil rights.
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