Baseball celebrated one of its most iconic figures ever during the
recent 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s step onto the dusty field
of the Brooklyn Dodgers stadium. Robinson and his family made tall
sacrifices in order to be a part of the "Great Experiment" that
As a child growing up in a segregated America, I heard plenty about
Jackie Robinson. Every self-respecting black family had a place for him
in their home.
Hank Aaron would write that he believed every black person in
America had a piece of those pennants won by the Dodgers thanks to
Jackie. "We were all with Jackie. We slid into every base that he
swiped, ducked at every fastball that hurtled toward his head."
I always heard the expression that Jackie “broke the color barrier.” Being the visual and literal kid that I was, I envisioned a scene where Robinson had to run through a line of angry white people to get to the “other side.” Hence, he broke the color line.
The more I learned about Jackie Robinson, the more real that imaginary line became. He did have to push back on an angry white America many times and in many ways.
It wasn’t just racial bigotry that caused the league players, even own teammates, to be hateful and hostile. There was definitely some playa hatin’ going on as well. Jackie was the only college-educated player on the team, lettering in four sports. (Baseball wasn’t even his best sport!) He was sophisticated and politically conscious, plus he was good looking.
What manner of man would be willing to endure spikes in the ribs, garbage thrown at his head and death threats against him and his family? Where did the character come from that allowed him to endure sleeping in flophouses while his teammates slept well? What allowed this man still to go out on the field and give it all he had?
These were no personal triumphs for Jackie Robinson; it was about his people. This brother was court-martialed and discharged from the US Army for refusing to ride in the back of a military bus. A gang-banger as a youth, he was no pacifist. His behavior as a professional athlete was deliberate and selfless.
When Jackie died in 1972, many younger black players did not go to pay their respects to the man who made it possible for them to make their seven-figure salaries. Others wonder if the current “white-out” going on in baseball will dim the legacy of the Jackie Robinsons.
Black players who came in the generation after Robinson are more than concerned. They are doing what they can to keep the legacy of Jackie Robinson alive.
For example, it was Ken Griffey, Jr’s idea for all the players in the American League to wear the number forty-two, Robinson’s old jersey number. At least it might have prompted conversation about why so many players were wearing “42.”
Dave Winfield, Hall-of-Famer and former New York Yankees outfielder, tried to shake up the sport. Winfield, now an executive of the San Diego Padres, published Dropping the Ball, which shared his action plan for addressing racism in baseball. He laid out how to revitalize the sport, including bringing more African Americans onto the field, into the stands and up into the front office.
Today, the numbers of blacks on the field and in the front office are shamefully low. There are no black CEOs or majority league owners. The percentage of American-Americans in the major leagues has dropped from a high of 28 percent in 1975 to a puny 8.5 percent.
With baseball getting whiter, perhaps it will be the scholars of color and the beneficiaries of the Jackie Robinson Foundation who will carry the torch for his other love — education.
It will take all of us holding up his accomplishments both on and off the field to remind the nation that Jackie’s greatness is immeasurable and timeless. He is an American hero who walked his talk.
“A life is not important,” Robinson once said, “except in the impact it has on other lives.”
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