40th anniversary: Jackie Robinson dies

Forty years ago today, one of baseball’s most famous players passed away when Jackie Robinson died.

A lot can be said about Robinson the player, the person, and what he stood for. On the field, he was a tremendous all-around talent and a fiery team leader. Of course, what he’s more famous for is his overall impact, as he was the first player to break the color barrier.

Like I said, a lot can be said about Robinson and what he represented, but for right now I’d rather spend the small amount of space I have available to focus on another aspect of Robinson—how young he was when he died. In October of 1972, Robinson was just 53 years old.

Let’s put it in perspective this way. Less than two years ago, legendary fireballer Bob Feller died. Feller entered Cooperstown the same day as Robinson in 1962. Yet despite living 38 years longer than Robinson, Feller was actually born a few months before Robinson. If Robinson had Feller’s lifespan, he would’ve died early in 2011.

As you may have heard, this weekend former Democratic senator George McGovern died. He was running for president in 1972 when Robinson passed away. McGovern is just three years younger than Robinson. Heck, Robinson is actually six months younger than Nelson Mandela, who is still around.

Robinson was 53 years, eight months, and 24 days when he passed away. Barack Obama will reach that mark on April 28, 2015. These next few weeks will determine if he’s still president by then. George W. Bush hit that mark before becoming president. Bill Clinton hit it during his second administration.

Going back into the world of baseball for a second, the former players closest in age to 53 years, eight months, and 24 days include Willie McGee, Harold Baines, and Bill Gullickson. You don’t expect any of them to die anytime soon.

If you’ve ever seen photos of Robinson near the end of his life, he sure doesn’t look like someone in his early 50s. He looks quite a bit older than that. He was nearly blind, had gray hair, and couldn’t walk around that well.

Yet he was still active. About a week before he died, major league baseball honored Robinson before Game Two of the World Series. Robinson didn’t just passively accept the honor, but used the opportunity to talk to say how happy he’ll be when there’s finally a black manager in baseball.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that Robinson would take the opportunity to promote a cause he believed in. A few years earlier, when Curt Flood became the first player to challenge the reserve clause, no active players testified on Flood’s behalf, and virtually no retired players did either—but Robinson did. He testified in the courtroom for Flood.

That’s rather fitting, given that Robinson once claimed, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” And it’s a damn shame he died so young.

Aside from that, many other baseball related events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something occurring X-thousand days ago). Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d rather just skim through things.


1,000 days since the Brewers sign Jim Edmonds as a free agent.

2,000 days since Jim Tracy manages his 1,000th game. His career record is 507-493 at this point.

3,000 days since Greg Maddux notches his 300th career win.

4,000 days since Mark McGwire announces his retirement.

5,000 days since the Reds announce they are dropping their no-facial-hair policy.

6,000 days since a mild quake (4.8 on the Richter Scale) rocks the Giants-Expos game in the third inning. The game continues, and the hometown Giants win, 8-5.

6,000 days since Ken Griffey Jr. hits his 200th home run.

6,000 days since Mel Hall appears in his last game.

6,000 days since Terry Mulholland, of all people, hits a 407-foot home run. He began the day with the third-lowest batting average by anyone with over 400 career at-bats.

8,000 days since a consortium led by Claude Brouch buys the Expos for $85 million.

15,000 days since Gil Hodges manages his last game.

15,000 days since the last Washington Senators game. It ends in forfeit as the fans, upset that team owner Bob Short has elected to move the club to Texas, run on the field en masse. Earlier in the game, two fans held giant banners from the upper deck that dangled nearly to the field proclaiming, “SHORT STINKS!”

15,000 days since Tony Perez plays third base for the final time.


1857 Ned Williamson, star 19th-century third baseman, is born.

1908 Billy Murray introduces a new song: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

1929 Jim Brosnan, pitcher/author, is born.

1930 The Indians release Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell.

1947 The Indians release longtime pitcher Mel Harder.

1950 The Boston Braves release former Dodgers star Pete Reiser.

1952 Speedy outfielder Omar Moreno is born.

1955 The Indians release former star slugger Ralph Kiner.

1957 The Reds announce that they’ll stay in Cincinnati instead of moving to Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City.

1957 Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is born.

1959 The Braves sign amateur Rico Carty.

1961 The Cardinals release longtime player Red Schoendienst.

1963 The Yankees decide to make manager Ralph Houk their GM.

1972 The Reds release Julian Javier.

1972 The Dodgers release Maury Wills.

1972 The Pirates release Hall of Fame second baseman Bill Mazeroski. This ends his Hall of Fame career.

1974 The Red Sox release three veteran players: Dick McAuliffe, Bob Veale, and—most notably—Hall of Famer Juan Marichal.

1975 The Reds trade fiery pitcher Joaquin Andujar to the Astros.

1977 Rafael Furcal is born.

1986 Longtime Dodgers shortstop Bill Russell announces his retirement.

1986 In Game Five of the World Series, Royals pitcher Danny Jackson strikes out the side on nine pitches in the seventh inning. Jackson leads the Royals to a 6-1 win over the Cardinals. KC needs this as they’d lost three of the first four games. This begins their comeback, as they’ll win the World Series in seven games.

1988 Minnesota trades three players, most notably aging second baseman Tom Herr, to the Phillies for crafty lefty Shane Rawley and cash.

1988 The Yankees trade Jack Clark to the Padres.

1992 The Blue Jays are world champions, as they win Game Six of the World Series, 4-3 in 11 innings, over the Braves. Atlanta tied it 2-2 in the bottom of the ninth, but Toronto scored twice in the top of the 11th, which was enough to overcome Atlanta’s last-ditch rally in the bottom half of the frame.

1995 Atlanta just doesn’t fair well in 11-inning games on Oct. 24. They lose this one, 7-6, to Cleveland in Game Three of the World Series. The Braves came back in the late innings to take the lead briefly, but the Indians tied them in the bottom of the eighth.

1996 Apparently, a game doesn’t have to go 11 innings to be bad news for the Braves on Oct. 24. The Yankees beat Atlanta, 1-0, in Game Five of the World Series when Andy Pettitte outduels John Smoltz. It puts the Yankees one win from their first world championship in 18 years.

2003 The Red Sox release veteran reliever Bob Howry.

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11 years ago

Most of the time when we see “(team) releases longtime player X”  X is toast, has nothing left.  But after the 1930 release of Joe Sewell the Yankees picked him up for 3 more good years.  Did the Indians just misjudge the possibility of a comeback after his relatively poor 1930, or was something else going on?

Chris J.
11 years ago

kds – I really don’t know.

Marc Schneider
11 years ago

You have to think that Robinson lived a very stressful life and that may have contributed to his early death.  You mentioned Bob Feller and, frankly, people like Feller did not make things easier.  He was not exactly a fan of Jackie Robinson’s and my impression is that he was not crazy about black people generally.

Paul G.
11 years ago

I don’t know the particular reason why Sewell was released, but his 1930 season was so-so (.289 batting average in a league that batted .288) and they had a three relatively young infielders in Johnny Burnett, Ed Montague, and Johnny Hodapp.  Probably figured it was time for the “kids”.  It doesn’t appear it worked as well as hoped as they ended up trading for Willie Kamm in May.  (Hodapp’s career was derailed by injury in 1931 after his career year at age 24.  Montague was a better scout than player as he ended up signing Willie Mays.  Burnett appears to have been a super-sub kinda player.  Holds the record for most hits in a game with 9.)

11 years ago

Jackie Robinson died at the age of 53 (as did Babe Ruth).

Terry Francona’s 53. So’s Jason Alexander and Ira Glass from “This American Life.” If Michael Jackson were still alive, he’d be 54.

Fifty-three is young.

Bruce Markusen
11 years ago

I don’t think there’s any question that the stress and anxiety of being the first black player in 20th century MLB history took a toll on Robinson’s health and contributed to his early death. What he went through—the beanballs, the namecalling, the death threats—it’s hard to imagine how that could not have hurt his short and long-term health.

As far as the Feller/Robinson conflict, there may have been a racial angle, but I believe a lot of the trouble stemmed from their barnstorming efforts and Robinson’s expressed unhappiness with the amount of the cut he was receiving from Feller. They had a nasty dispute over barnstorming money and never really forgave each other.