The focus of this column is on the pinbacks of Jackie Robinson. As is the case with many individuals, the significance of someone’s accomplishments is often more fully recognized later in life or after their passing. However, such does not seem to be the case with Robinson. If the number of pinbacks issued during a player’s career is an indicator of his popularity, Robinson was also highly recognized during his career. More pinbacks were made of Jackie Robinson than any other player in history. No other player even comes close, not even Babe Ruth. To date I have identified 24 baseball pinback buttons featuring Robinson issued during his ten-year Major League career. Pinbacks were made of him following his retirement after the 1956 season and following his death in 1972.
I begin with what many people regard as the first Robinson pin. It shows him wearing a uniform that is attributed to his 1946 Minor League team, the Montreal Royals. I have no expertise on uniforms, so I will take on faith that he is wearing the uniform of the Royals. However, for three reasons I question whether this pinback was made in 1946 by a Canadian pinmaker. First, pinbacks made in Canada typically use a different construction process than pins made in the United States. Canadian pins often have a thinner collet and a slightly domed surface. This 1.75” pin of Robinson has the same design features as his U.S. made pins. Second, to the best of my knowledge no 1.75” black/white pin has ever been made of any Minor League player that featured a head shot and the player’s name (i.e., the standard PM10 design). I know of 1.25” black/white pins of Minor League players (including a set of pins of the Montreal Royals). I also know of 1.75” pins of Minor League players that acknowledged a special accomplishment. As such, if this 1.75” pin of Robinson was made when Robinson was with the Royals, it is unique. Finally, if a Canadian pinmaker wanted to issue a pin of Robinson from his playing days with the Montreal Royals, I submit the pin would show the Montreal team name on the jersey and/or team logo on the cap. This pin of Robinson has been airbrushed to reveal neither.
If the pin was not made in 1946, what is its origin? I believe it was made in the U.S. after Robinson was a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was probably made in 1947 to offer another souvenir of Robinson to his growing legion of fans. While I have no proof of my assertion, the alternative (and prevailing) interpretation of this pin being made in 1946 is not supported by either the history of Minor League player pinback buttons or the physical characteristics of this pin. It is difficult to place Robinson pins in chronological order. I think the best that can be done is to cluster them into two eras. Many pins are related to his rookie year in 1947. This 1.25” pin depicts a very youthful looking Robinson. This is the only pin that uses this image of Robinson. His (first) name was placed in quotation marks. Three pins were made of Robinson from a pose in which his left ear is not visible. The first (1.25”) of these pins simply presents his name and team. The next pin (1.25”) states, “I’m Rooting for Jackie Robinson.” The third pin (1.75”) has the same inscription, but the image is expanded to include a portion of the team name across the jersey. Another grouping of three pins features an image of Robinson looking to his left with both ears visible. The first of these pins (1.25”) features a high degree of visual clarity in the image. The pin references Robinson as an “Outstanding Rookie.” The lettering on the pin was made with a stencil. The same stenciling was used in a 3.50” matched pair of 1947 World Series pins of the American League champion Yankees and the National League champion Dodgers. The images of the players on this pin are from a team-issued photo pack. Although it would take extensive magnification to read it, each player’s name appears in script below his picture. Robinson appears directly beneath the letter “K” in “Brooklyn.” The next pin is of the same design as the 1.25” pin, except this “Outstanding Rookie” pin is 3.50”. Finally, another pin (1.75”) was made featuring this image of Robinson with a red border, again with the inscription, “I’m Rooting for Jackie Robinson.” A pin (1.75”) was made celebrating Robinson winning the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in the National League. Another two Robinson pins are also most likely from 1947. The first is an unusual size, 1.50”, and is a promotional pin from the Brooklyn Eagle, the local newspaper. The pin describes Robinson’s “story” being presented in the paper. The second pin (1.25”) is of unknown origin and meaning. It could be associated with youth baseball as part of facilitating racial integration. Although it might be related to Robinson’s teammates on the Dodgers, it is not clear how this pin would have been purchased by fans. It is a lithograph pin, only one of two that used this manufacturing process. Lithograph pins are easily scratched and less expensive to produce than celluloid pins. As such, I believe this pin has a different origin than the rest of the Robinson pins. Three other early pins, most likely from 1947, consist of only words. One pin (2.50”) refers to “Boosters” of Robinson. Perhaps this pin was distributed to members of a fan club. The second pin (2.00”) contains many words. It expresses support for the Dodgers in general, and Robinson in particular. A third pin (1.75”) simply states, “I’m For Jackie.”
It is instructive to note that in the history of baseball pinback buttons, very few were made expressly indicating support for a particular player. In 1961 Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were both trying to set the single season home run record held by Babe Ruth. Two pins were made of the players, “I’m For Mantle” and “I’m For Maris.” These two pins along with those of Robinson (and a few other players) are the exception to the rule. The vast majority of the pins that state “I’m Rooting For” are followed by a team name, as reflected in this example. Roger Kahn, in his classic book “The Boys of Summer,” indicated that some fans attended games at Ebbets Field to show their support more for Robinson as a person than the Dodgers as a team. The “I’m Rooting For Jackie” pins would support Kahn’s position.
The second era of Robinson pins are mostly the standard 1.75” size. The first pin shows Robinson in his classic batting stance with his elbows raised high.
Update: A reader informed me this pinstriped uniform is from the Kansas City Monarchs when Robinson played with them in 1945. All of the pictures of this uniform that I have found feature a prominent “KC” across the chest. It appears the KC was airbrushed, leaving no team name or logo on either the jersey or the cap. The reader speculated the pin was created by vendors to sell early in the 1947 season before there were photographs of Robinson wearing a Dodger uniform. The team name “Dodgers” was added to the pin, although clearly this is not the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As such, this pin is not only from Robinson’s rookie year with the Dodgers, it pre-dates his pins wearing a Dodger uniform. The explanation of this pin also adds credence that Robinson’s pin wearing a Montreal Royal uniform was made in the U.S. after he joined the Dodgers in 1947.
The next two pins both feature the same image of Robinson. In one he is sitting in the dugout. In the second pin the distinctive background has been airbrushed. Based on other pins using this same construction process (rather poorly made with thin metal), this pin of Robinson is most likely from 1952. Robinson appeared in two 3.50” team photo pins of the 1952 National League champions. Robinson appears in the back row, third from the left. A classic group of player pins was made in a 2.125” size. They are sometimes referred to as the “large” PM10 pins. Although these pins were made over several years, the earliest pins were made in 1953. This large PM10 pin of Robinson is most likely from 1953.
Robinson appeared in two 3.50” team photo pins of the 1953 National League champions. Robinson appears in the second row of players, third from the left. Three 1.75” pins were made of Robinson looking toward his left. One has a white background. The second has a streaked grey background. The third has a blue background, one of seven Dodger player pins featuring this color. Based on the set of players featured, these blue pins are most likely from 1955. The final 1.75” photo pin of Robinson features a yellow background. Based upon his appearance, this pin seems to be from near the end of his career. The contrast between his facial features from his first year in baseball (most notably the dated 1947 Congratulations “Jackie” pin) and this yellow background pin is most evident. Finally, Robinson was one of five Dodgers featured in the 1956 Topps set of 60 (1.125”) pins. This is the second lithograph pin of Robinson.
Pins were made of Robinson following his retirement from baseball as well as his death. Robinson supported Nelson Rockefeller’s 1964 campaign for Governor of New York in this 2.125” x 2.125” pin.
In 1981 UCLA named its baseball stadium in honor of Robinson in this 3.00” pin. Robinson played baseball for UCLA in 1940 and 1941.
A 2.25” pin was made (year unknown) promoting stories about Robinson in a book, magazine, or newspaper.
In 1997 the New York Mets gave away this 2.25” pin of Robinson to attendees on the 50th anniversary of his Major League debut.
Finally, a 1998 2.25” pin promoting black history month (February) featured Robinson’s name. February, 1998 would have been the first February following MLB’s decision to retire Robinson’s jersey number.
Robinson remains an enduring legacy in American history. The movie “42” was released in 2013 describing his entrance into Major League baseball. It was the second movie made of his career; the first being “The Jackie Robinson Story” released in 1950 (Robinson played himself). Pins will undoubtedly continue to be made of Robinson.
The number of pins featuring Robinson is staggering. From his playing days he appeared on 24 individual pins and 5 team pins. While previously undiscovered pins can turn up in the hobby at any time, I will offer my guess as to the possible identity of two of them. Baseball pinback buttons traditionally come in three sizes: 1.25”, 1.75”, and 3.50”, with 1.75” being the most common. The two “Outstanding Rookie” pins are 1.25” and 3.50”. It would not surprise me if their 1.75” counterpart turns up one day. Second, a number of 2.125” Dodger pins (i.e., the large PM10 pins) also exist in the 1.75” size. The particular pose of Robinson on his 2.125” pin is not known to exist in the 1.75” size. It would not surprise me to learn that such a pin also exists.
A cliché in sports is that “records are made to be broken.” Jackie Robinson holds the record for most pins made of a player. When Robinson played there were no licensing laws regarding merchandise featuring a player’s likeness, team names, and team logos. Today all MLB-related merchandise requires the payment of licensing fees by the manufacturer. Given the relatively low profit associated with the sale of pinback buttons, it seems unlikely any manufacturer would incur the cost of making pins of players, let alone many different pins of the same player. Jackie Robinson holds a unique place in baseball history. So do his pins.
Next up: What We Learn From Hand-Written Notations on Pins and Ribbons