Jackie Robinson’s $36 Million Contract

Jackie Robinson shakes Branch Rickey's hand after signing his 1948 contract. February 12, 1948 New York City, New York, USA
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey after signing contract.

Jackie Robinson signed his original contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. His rookie salary was $5,000 – the equivalent of $55,000 today. (The minimum major-league salary in 2016 is $507,500.)

Robinson performed so well playing first base, that the next year  Dodgers president and general manager, Branch Rickey, more than doubled his salary – to $12,500. He moved to second base and played most of his career at that position. By 1950, he was earning $35,000, the largest salary ever paid to a Dodger up to that point.

The Dodgers are paying Chase Utley $10,000,000 to play second base for them this year. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez is making $21,857,143.

The original Jackie Robinson contract has for decades been in the hands of a private collector. It was recently sold to Collectors Café, a company newly formed by Mykalai Kontilai. Mr. Kontilai, among other activities, was previously head of NBR Worldwide Inc., a one-time producer of PBS’s “Nightly Business Report.” The documents have been authenticated and appraised at $36,000,000. If you want to make a bid, go here. A cynic might suggest the rightful place for this historic contract is the Baseball Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian.jroct-05-1947phil-rizzuto

Robinson famously promised Rickey that he would play his first year with the Dodgers, endure the expected abuse as the first African-American to play Major-League baseball, without reacting or striking back. He kept to it, a remarkable pledge from a man whose life had been one of demanding to be treated with dignity.

Jackie Robinson was drafted into military service in 1942. This despite a large bone chip, the remnant of breaking his ankle playing football for Pasadena Junior College in 1937 and again in 1941 with the semi-professional Los Angeles Bulldogs.

He was assigned to a segregated cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he attained the rank of corporal. Being qualified, Robinson applied to Officer Candidate School. After delays, he learned that no blacks had been admitted to O.C.S. With the intervention of Joe Louis – the heavyweight-boxing champion was also stationed at Fort Riley – and Louis’s friend Truman Gibson, an assistant to the Secretary of War, Robinson and several other black soldiers received long past-due commissions as second lieutenants. He was then reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he joined the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion.

On July 6, 1944, exactly one month after the D-Day invasion, Robinson boarded an Army bus at the “colored officers club” to ride to the hospital to learn results of tests on his injured ankle. He sat next to the light-skinned wife of one of his fellow officers. She looked white to the bus driver who ordered Robinson to move to the back. Robinson refused. The driver summoned military police. In response to his complaint to the investigating officer about questioning filled with racist slurs, the officer recommended court martial. When his commander of the 761st refused to authorize it, Robinson was transferred to the 758th Battalion, whose commander signed orders to prosecute him for multiple offenses.jrobinson_army

Robinson faced two charges: “… behaving with disrespect toward his superior officer” – “Look here, you son-of-a-bitch, don’t you call me no nigger!” – and “… willful disobedience of lawful command of his superior.” Three other charges were dropped before the court martial began. A four-hour trial resulted in his acquittal. Robinson was honorably discharged in November that year.

The 761st Tank Battalion had in the meantime been deployed to Europe, where it suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of the Bulge. If not for transfer to the 758th and subsequent court martial, Jackie Robinson’s fate could have been much different.

Eleven years later, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat to the back of a bus, thus setting off the modern civil-rights movement.

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