Health Advice



Did racism kill Jackie Robinson?

Tamra Burns Loeb, University of California, Los Angeles; Alicia Morehead-Gee, Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, and Derek Novacek, University of California, Los Angeles, The Conversation on

Published in Health & Fitness

And always, there were racial slurs.

One of the worst incidents happened when the Philadelphia Phillies came to Ebbets Field to face the Dodgers in Brooklyn in 1947.

Robinson later wrote about that day, recalling some of the insults and taunts. They were not only from fans but from Phillies players.

Robinson also wrote that he considered giving up and tearing into the Phillies’ dugout.

Instead, he went on to win Rookie of the Year in 1947. In 1949, he was National League MVP. He led the Dodgers to a World Series Title in 1955.

Robinson’s health problems began while he was still in the major leagues. He struggled with his weight, and he experienced pain in his knees, arm and ankles. He was diagnosed with diabetes at age 37, about the time he retired. Two of his brothers also had diabetes. Robinson’s hair began to turn white.


By 1969, at age 50, he had nerve and artery damage in his legs. In 1970, he suffered two mild strokes. His doctors noted that both of his legs would soon require amputation. He then lost sight in one eye and experienced limited vision in the other. He suffered from high blood pressure, and had three heart attacks, the third of which was fatal.

However, despite these problems, Robinson kept his diabetes “in the closet,” insisting that he felt good.

Those of us who study health disparities now have a better understanding how Jackie’s life experiences all likely contributed to his early death. His refusal to capitulate to the hatred he encountered on a daily basis, the magnitude of his role in the struggle to challenge Jim Crow and integrate baseball, and the extensive racial trauma all likely played a factor. In addition, the death of his eldest son, Jackie Robinson Jr., in a car crash in 1971 no doubt took its toll.

It is now well established that the racism and discrimination that people of color experience has a negative effect on health. This burden was incalculably magnified by a society that refused to acknowledge, denied the existence of and justified structural racism. For instance, in 2016, the city of Philadelphia issued an official apology for the racist incidents Robinson encountered there in 1947. Yet efforts to make amends could be offered only to his widow – Jackie didn’t live long enough to receive them.


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