Sunday, April 15, 2007


On April 15th, 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his first game in Major League Baseball and changed the world.

America was different in the late 1940’s than it is now. We had just won World War II, and there was a sense of optimism and joy that the struggle was over. But many of the things we were fighting for overseas – freedom, the end of Nazi Germany’s racial elitism – were still problems back home. There had been huge numbers of African Americans in the military, but it was still segregated. Some people started asking why, if blacks could go off and get killed to defend their country, why were they treated any differently once they returned? But that wasn’t true everywhere, especially in the South, and the increased acceptance of blacks in some areas just made the hatred and violence that much worse.

Nowhere was this division more starkly seen than baseball. Baseball was, at the time, truly the national sport. Football had its followers, but it didn’t really take off as a national phenomenon until television. Basketball was in its infancy. Hockey was played in 6 northern cities (two of which were in Canada). Auto Racing was a niche sport. But baseball was everywhere. The country hadn’t yet been linked by television, and while radio carried the big league games, small towns all over the country had their own teams. Young boys didn’t grow up trying to decide if they wanted to be Michael Jordan or Joe Montana – they all wanted to be Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio. Or, if they were black, Josh Gibson or Satchel Paige.

From the 1920’s up through the early 1950’s, African Americans owned and operated a parallel set of baseball leagues to the American and National Leagues in organized (white) baseball. In their own way, they were the linchpin of the black business community – often the owners were the wealthiest blacks in town. The play was excellent, and the community supported the teams as much as they were able. Unfortunately, because of the racial divide in the country, that just wasn’t that much. Young black children knew who DiMaggio was, but young white kids didn’t know who Josh Gibson was, or that he may have been the best catcher ever. The industry that surrounded white baseball – the recordkeeping, the radio broadcasts, the baseball cards – existed in a much more rudimentary form in the Negro Leagues. While the black players were every bit as good as the white, there was no mistaking which league was on top.

White teams and black teams had played exhibition games against each other for years, with the white teams usually losing. They weren’t trying to prove anything, and it showed. But that meant that the white players knew how good their counterparts were, and a large majority (80% by some polls) had no issues with the idea of playing with black teammates. However, the opposition was nearly 100% in the owner’s boxes. A combination of racism, conservatism, and the fear of what would happen if there were any changes kept things the way they’d been since 1884, when Moses “Fleet” Walker became the only black player ever to play in a major league game (under the guise of being a dark-skinned Cuban).

Baseball was ruled with an iron fist by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner (for life) that the owners had appointed after the Black Sox scandal (which had nothing to do with race, but involved the 1919 Chicago White Sox deliberately losing the World Series in exchange for payoffs from gamblers). Landis wanted no part of integrating baseball, and he blocked any attempts to do so until his death in late 1944. There had been attempts – most notably from visionary Bill Veeck, who wanted to buy the worst team in baseball and stock it with black stars, but the sale was blocked, and the leagues stayed separate. After Landis died, the new commissioner, A. B. “Happy” Chandler was discreetly approached and made it clear that he did not share the attitude of his predecessor.

That opened the door for Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson to step through. Rickey ran the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, after an amazing career that had already made him a legend in baseball. He had worked in baseball all his life, and had been running teams for 30 years. Rickey knew that a successfully integrated team would make money, as attendance in the African American community would rise sharply. He was also a bit of an idealist, having been struck by the anguish a black player had gone through on his college team forty years earlier. However, even though there was nothing preventing integration, and there was one team willing to try it, they still needed to find the right person.

Whoever took on the mantle of “the first black player in the modern major leagues” not only had to be a good enough player as to make people accept him on that level, he also had to be strong enough to endure the vicious hatred that was sure to come. Not only would he be forcing his way into new territory, he’d be taking someone’s job, and if he succeeded, more white players would lose their jobs as well. And he couldn’t just be tough, he had to be smart – a hothead who fought back against the abuse would have only brought more upon himself, and it was a fight no single man could win.

Jackie Robinson was a good young player in the Negro Leagues, although far from a star. He had been an excellent athlete at UCLA, especially in football and basketball, and had served in the military for three years during the war. While in the Army, he had been court-martialed (and found not guilty) for refusing to sit in the back of a transport bus. He was married to a strong woman, Rachel, and whatever hatred he faced, she dealt with as well.

When Rickey decided that Robinson was the best man for the job, they had an extraordinary meeting in which they discussed the realities of what lay ahead. Rickey taunted Jackie with every racial slur he could think of – vile, nasty, incredibly rude things. He’d hear those things, and worse, from thousands of people every day. He made Jackie agree that for three years, he wouldn’t retaliate against a single player, for any reason. Jackie was to play first base, instead of second, because it would reduce the risk of someone sliding in with their spikes up (players back then were known, from time to time, to file the tips of their spikes when playing against guys they didn’t like). And then they signed the contract.

Robinson actually broke the color barrier in the minor leagues first, playing for the Montreal Royals in 1946. His manager didn’t want him, asking Rickey “Is [he] even human?” But Jackie’s play, and his determination, won over his harshest critics, even that same manager – by the end of the year, he was calling Jackie one of the best players he’d ever seen. The game was played differently in the Negro Leagues than in white baseball – it was faster, with more stolen bases and more energy. Watching film of Robinson play, you can see that he was always hustling, always running, always doing everything he could to beat the other guy, even if it was by an inch.

And then on April 15th, 1947, Jackie finally played his first game with the Dodgers. He, figuratively, carried the weight of the entire black community on his back. Failure meant that it would be that much harder for someone else to try it. It would validate all of the hateful things that the racists said to make themselves feel better. And it would break the hearts of black people everywhere – from the kids who looked up to Jackie as their idol to famous black musicians and entertainers, who told him that he was their hope. As popular as baseball was, if he could successfully lead the way for African Americans into the majors, then the entire black community would feel like it was part of the national pastime, and hence the national fabric. To succeed at baseball, hyperbolic as it sounds, meant succeeding as an American to many people. Rookies have enough trouble trying to succeed for themselves, much less millions of people.

Jackie Robinson not only succeeded, but he was a star. He changed the game, not just from the standpoint of who played it, but how it was played. A rookie at age 28, he was in the top 15 in Most Valuable Player voting his first 7 years in the league, winning in 1949. The game got faster and more exciting. He kept his promise to Branch Rickey, and turned the other cheek for years whenever he’d hear epithets or taunts coming from the stands or the other dugout. He won skeptical teammates over with his excellent play, and became the idol of kids across the country, both black and white.

After he retired, he became a ceaseless advocate for racial causes. Martin Luther King, Jr., said that if Jackie hadn’t done what he did, both on the field and off, then it would have been unlikely that he could have done what he did. By playing a game, hitting and throwing a ball, first as the only black man among hundreds of whites, and then just as a star, he opened minds all over the country. People who’d always looked at blacks as inferior had that view challenged. People from segregated communities who really didn’t know what to think about blacks saw him succeed with grace and humility, and had their minds opened. The country didn’t immediately become a panacea of racial equality, but because baseball truly was part of so many lives, Jackie’s success in the sport truly led the way for change for millions of people.

Unfortunately, the stress of dealing with the hate took its toll on Jackie, and he died at 53. His widow, Rachel, continued to work for the same causes he always did, and today, nearly 35 years after his death, the country continues to recognize his contributions. He was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. The Rookie of the Year award in baseball is the Jackie Robinson Award. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s first game, his number was retired, not by the Dodgers (who had done it years before), but by every team. And today, to mark the 60th anniversary, players from around the league who want to pay tribute to his achievement will wear his number, 42. First, it was Ken Griffey, Jr., who asked for permission to honor Jackie, and then the invitation was spread to all 30 teams. More than 150 players will take the field wearing the number 42, including five entire teams, including the Dodgers.

Some consider the tribute to be watering down the meaning, but to me, it’s a celebration. Athletes are often called heroic or courageous just because they play a game well. But Jackie really was a hero. He displayed incredible courage against hate and bigotry and opened the way for change not just in baseball, but in the world. The other day, my wife ordered Dodgers T-shirts with “Robinson 42” on the back, and we will join with countless others in saying thank you to a man who not only made the game I love one worthy of respect, but who truly made the world a better place.

1 comment:

Rousing Rabble said...

Doc, this is a great piece of writing and a worthy history lesson!!