Today is the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. Some people might wonder how something that never existed was ever so fiercely defended, but to do that, we must dig up the bones of Kennesaw Mountain Landis and ask them why he kept the game so lily white for so long. We must ask Charles Commiskey why he fought so hard to keep “Chief Tokohama” (Charlie Grant) out of baseball. We must go back to Ty Cobb and all of the other racists and agitators of the time to see why they feared an integrated baseball game. We need to go all the way back to handshake deals and Cap Anson refusing to play teams with black players on them. And still further back, we must look to the Walker brothers for their contributions to baseball as the only African American professional baseball players before Jackie Robinson ran from the Montreal fans that had love and not lynching on their minds after that beautiful finale to the 1946 season that saw them win 100 games and the International League Championship.
Jackie was a man among men. A person who became larger than life when he refused to fight back for three years, but still hit .297, .296, and then a staggering .342 in his 3rd year to lead the league in hitting. Over 10 years, he would hit .311 and while his homerun and stolen base totals look rather pedestrian against other Hall of Famers, we have to look beyond the numbers to the images of a man stealing home. We must see the spikes held up as they go into the second basemen’s leg, not to break up the double play, but to break up the spirit of a man. We must see the black cat walking on the field. We must hear the hateful taunts and chants. We must envision the petition to keep him off the team. We must feel the fate of a people on the back of a man who was crucified for daring to integrate a team.
Here was a man who wasn’t a T-shirt slogan. He wasn’t defended and airbrushed in the mainstream press. Here was a man who stood up to racism in the army, refusing to give up a seat to a white man. In that, he was expressing everything Rosa Parks did years before Claudette Colvin was to pregnant and single to do it. And while he couldn’t publicly stand as gigantic above the hateful prejudice of the white world as that 100-pound giant once did, he was laying down the foundation for Martin Luther King, who once so eloquently said that if it weren’t for Jackie, he couldn’t have ever did what he did in standing up to oppression in the cities of the American south during those years of the Civil Rights Movement.
Here was a man who died at 53. Here is a man who found the right wife, a woman whose tiny back deflected so many hateful words thrown at him. Here is a man who quit baseball after 10 years to change the world in other ways only to watch his son tragically die of drugs at age 24. Here is a man who faced the grilling of Branch Rickey to say the right things to get the chance when he finally got the chance to be great (no thanks to a bullshit tryout in Boston that was never going to be successful).
Here is the life of my hero, Jackie Robinson, a man that I respect beyond the simple words of just being a hero. Here is what it means to be an American, a man, a human being who will defend and inspire all of those people that come after him. So what if he gets labelled a hothead when he finally gets to be his own man in 1950. So what if his stats aren’t as enormous as some of the other players that have come along since him.
If not for him, there is no Bob Gibson, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Willie Mccovey, Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Ferguson Jenkins, Joe Morgan, and Billy Williams in the Hall of Fame.
If not for him, we would never have known of Cool Papa Bell, Satchell Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Andy Cooper, Ray Dandridge, Leon Day, Mart Dihigo, Bill Foster, Rube Forster, Frank Grant, Pete Hill, Monte Irvin, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Effa Manley, Pop Lloyd, Biz Mackey, Bullet Rogan, Louis Santop, Hilton Smith, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles, Ben Taylor, Willie Wells, Smoky Joe Williams, and Joe Wilson to the veterans committee. Buck O’ Neil wouldn’t have been able to get their records memorialized and analyzed, and these men would be segregated from Cooperstown.
If not for him, would there be a Latino revolution in baseball? Would Hideo Nomo have been able to throw a no-hitter and would Ichiro have been able to accumulate so many hits? Would anyone care that the Houston Astros had no African Americans on their roster for the 2005 World Series? Would baseball be trying to find a way to bring baseball back to the inner city? Would baseball be the same?
So on this day that we celebrate the legacy of what it means to play with class, we should look to how Jackie Robinson stood up proud for the empowerment of his race and hope that it finds its way to the players of today, black and white and Latino and Asian, and hope that they get to be 1/100 of the person that Jackie was on that 1947 day.