For Elliott Abramson
- A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
- Jackie Robinson
Dozens of images flood my mind when I remember Jackie Robinson. At this great distance, two nonetheless dominate. The first is a sequence of images that emanate from the last four games played by the Dodgers during the 1951 season. The second, permanently inscribed in my mind, is the last image I have of the man, recorded as I watched the World Series 25 years ago.
On Sunday, September 30th, the last day of the 1951 baseball season, the Giants and Dodgers were tied for first place. The Giants took on the Braves in Boston that day, and with rain expected in the late afternoon, the game started one-half hour earlier than usual. As Bobby Thomson, who hit .449 during the last two weeks of the season, blasted his 30th home run of the year, the Giants won a 3—2 squeaker, their seventh straight victory. Larry Jansen picked up his 22nd win of the year by shutting down the Braves, 22 of them in a row at one stretch, in only two hours. Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Dodgers, who had trailed 6—1 in the third and knew the Giants had already won, finally caught the Phillies in the eighth inning, tieing the score at eight runs apiece. In the bottom of the twelfth with the score still tied, two outs, and the bases loaded, Eddie Waitkus dug in at the plate. He sent a low line drive to the right of second base that Robinson dove for. For a moment, his body was in midair, parallel to the ground. He miraculously caught the ball and then crashed, driving his elbow into his side. For several moments he lay on the ground with his teammates around him. Red Smith would later describe that catch by Robinson as “the unconquerable doing the impossible.” Jackie got up and play resumed. In the top of the 14th inning, with two outs and no one on base, Robinson belted a Robin Roberts’s fastball into the upper deck in left field for a home run, giving the Dodgers a 9—8 victory and sending them into a three-game playoff series with the Giants.
The Dodgers and Giants were the only teams in the history of the game from the same city who competed in the same league. The rivalry was vicious. After an August 8th day/night double-header conquest by the Dodgers, the victorious players, led by Robinson, taunted the losers through the door that separated the locker rooms. The furious Giants vowed revenge and orchestrated perhaps the greatest finish in baseball history. The Dodgers had held a 13-game lead over the Giants in mid-August. But while the Dodgers finished only 26—22 in their last 48 games, the Giants won an incredible 37 of their final 44, winning 16 in a row at one time, 12 of their last 13, and their final seven games.
Three civil brawls ensued. Brooklyn skipper, Charlie Dressen, picked Ralph Branca to start game one. Branca had started game one of the only other National League Playoff Series, in 1946 when the Dodgers lost two straight to the Cardinals. This time Branca gave up four hits and lost 3—1, One of those hits was a two-run homer by Bobby Thomson. In game two, rookie Clem Labine shut out the Giants 10—0.This was obviously a must game for the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson got it going in the first inning with a two-run homer. The Dodgers had evened the series; the Giants had lost their first game in nine; the season rested on the next game, which many consider the greatest and most dramatic ever played.
Once again Robinson sparked the action. He knocked in Brooklyn’s first run off Sal Maglie in the first inning. The Giants finally got to Don Newcombe in the seventh, tieing the score on a sacrifice fly by Bobby Thomson. In the eighth inning, the Dodgers scored three runs, Robinson the third one, and took a 4—1 lead into the ninth when Newcombe, pitching for the fourth time in eight days, grew tired and yielded two singles and a double. With one out, two on, and the score 4—2, the Dodgers brought in Branca, wearing number 13, who served up “the shot heard around the world.” The Giants had the pennant and their revenge.
I will always see, amidst the celebration, as the dejected Dodgers leave the field, Jackie Robinson standing at second base, watching Bobby Thomson intensely as he rounds the bases, making sure he touches each one. After he verifies that Thomson has done so, he makes his way to the losers’ locker room. But, alone among the Dodgers that day, he also finds his way to the Giants’ locker room to offer his congratulations.
This sequence of images indicates how Robinson played the game. His 1946 manager at Montreal, Clay Hopper, called him “the greatest competitor I ever saw.” Branch Rickey who brought him to the Dodgers named him “The most competitive man I have known since Ty Cobb.” In the 50 years I have watched the game, I have seen no player more fiercely dedicated to winning. On Jackie Robinson Night in 1947, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson said that he never thought he would live to stand “face to face with Ty Cobb in Technicolor.” I assume that he was not only alluding to Jackie’s base running and bunting abilities, but to the aggressive way he played the game. Leo “The Lip” Durocher, no slouch when it came to competitiveness, described Robinson in his inimitable fashion: “This guy didn’t just come to play. He came to beat ya. He came to stuff the goddamn bat right up your ass.”
On Oct. 15, 1972, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the desegregation of baseball, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited Robinson to a pregame ceremony before the second game of the World Series in Cincinnati. Nearly blind, with snowy white hair, this former terror on the base paths moved slowly as he was led out onto the playing field. When asked what his hopes were for baseball, he told the national television audience: “I’d like to live to see a black manager.” Jackie did not live to see Frank Robinson named the first black major league manager in 1975.A heart attack killed him nine days after this interview in Cincinnati. Although he always carried his bat with him, on and off the field, Jackie was not, as often charged, “an uppity [black]” who could never be satisfied, but rather, to the end, an unconquerable man of principle who simply would not be denied.
The grandson of a plantation slave, Jackie Robinson was born on Jan.31, 1919.His parents were sharecroppers on the Sasser plantation in Cairo, Georgia. After Jackie’s father, Jerry Robinson, abandoned his mother Mallie and their five children, Mallie moved the family from Georgia to Pasadena, California. Life was far from easy for Mallie and her children, but despite poverty, hunger, and an uneasy racial situation, the family survived. Mallie, a young Pasadena minister named Karl Downs, and sports kept the boys out of any real serious trouble.
Jackie’s brother, Mack, was a member of the 1936 Olympic team and finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200 meter dash in Berlin. When Jackie entered Pasadena Junior College in the fall of 1937, he immediately distinguished himself athletically. It was his record at UCLA, however, that brought him national attention. Jackie was the first man to letter in four sports at UCLA: basketball, baseball, football, and track. He twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring in basketball and, as a junior, he averaged 11 yards a carry in football. In 1940, he was the NCAA champion in the long jump. In addition to winning swimming championships at UCLA, he also won the Pacific Coast Intercollegiate Golf Championship, and in tennis he reached the semifinals of the National Negro Tournament. Perhaps no other athlete, including Jim Thorpe, has ever competed as effectively in as broad a range of sports. In his senior year, Jackie met Rachel Isum, a freshman, who would become his wife and the single most important influence on the rest of his life.
After serving as an officer in the Army and playing baseball in the Negro Leagues for a year, on Aug.28th, 1945, Jackie Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black in the 20th century to have a playing contract for a major league team. Robinson was specifically chosen by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey’s motives evinced cupidity and sincerity. Although his peers felt he was wrong, Rickey, assessing the influx of large numbers of blacks into Northern cities during the 1940’s, saw the potential for profit in desegregated major leagues. While he wanted to make money and win ballgames, it should never be forgotten that Rickey was also deeply committed to desegregation for religious reasons.
Even though there were better baseball players in the Negro Leagues, Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige to name but two, Robinson was the clear choice. He was intelligent, educated, proud, and articulate. He had charisma, self-respect, courage, and conviction. In addition, he had already competed against white athletes in college, had been an officer in the Army, and seemed to have the strength of character to endure the unbearable for the advancement of his race.
The unbearable began immediately in spring training, where Jackie and his wife were subjected to bigotry and segregation. When the town of Sanford forbade interracial competition, Rickey moved the team to Daytona. Robinson suffered a great deal of anxiety, had trouble sleeping, developed a sore arm, and had a pretty miserable spring training. As planned, he spent the entire 1946 season in the minor leagues with the Montreal Royals. In his first regular season game in Jersey City he went 4 for 5, homered, drove in four runs, stole two bases, and led his team to a 14—1 victory over the Jersey Giants.”Not a bad way to break into organized baseball,” remarked Rickey. During that season, while he was feted at home and enjoyed living in Montreal, a city known for its relative absence of anti-black prejudice, he was often subjected to racial venom on the road, particularly in Syracuse and Baltimore. Robinson suffered psychosomatic illnesses all season long. Wherever he went, however, attendance soared as blacks and whites came out in droves to see history in the making. When the season was over, Robinson led the Montreal Royals to the Little World Series Championship. He also led the International League in hitting at .349 and in runs scored with 113. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the league and led the Royals in just about everything except hotel accommodations.
In an attempt to avoid the indignities of Jim Crow, Rickey moved spring training in 1947 from Florida to Havana. The Dodger organization opted nonetheless for separate facilities for blacks and whites. In addition, a petition circulated among the players to prevent Robinson from being elevated to the Dodgers. This petition backfired both when Pete Reiser from Missouri and Pee Wee Reese from Louisville refused to sign it and when Branch Rickey and Leo Durocher openly fought it. When the season opened Jackie Robinson was playing first base for the Dodgers, and this would be, as Red Barber’s title indicates, the year When All Hell Broke Lose in Baseball.
As early as May, after Robinson hit .395 over a ten-game stretch on his first extended road trip, Rickey’s financial prophecies began to be realized: “Jackie’s nimble, Jackie’s quick, Jackie’s making the turnstiles click,” wrote Wendell Smith in the Pittsburgh Courier.In 1947 the Dodgers would draw the highest attendance in their history (1.8 million) and five other teams would set new season attendance records. Jackie, playing for the major league minimum of $5,000 a year, was the biggest draw in baseball since Babe Ruth.
How he managed to play at all is a wonder. He was subjected to streams of filth, vicious racial taunts, and other forms of public humiliation, particularly in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The Phillies’ manager, Ben Chapman, was the worst offender. After a particularly distasteful outburst, Dodger player Eddie Stanky, who opposed integration, turned on the Philadelphia dugout, called the taunters cowards and dared them to pick on someone who could fight back. Robinson had promised Rickey that under no circumstances would he retaliate against abuse until such time as the “noble experiment” had been successfully implemented. In Cincinnati too, Robinson was subjected to vicious insults. Once again, a teammate would protect him. When he was standing by first base, assailed by a barrage of racial slurs, Dodger captain and shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, came over and put his arm around him, quickly silencing the crowd. In effect, the more vicious the insults to Robinson, the more closely knit the team became.
On the road, Jackie was often forced to stay in black-only hotels and, when allowed to sleep in white hotels, was frequently obliged to take his meals in his room. In addition to receiving hate mail that included several death threats, Robinson was the target of savage spikings. Three times, for example, in two series with the Cardinals in late August and early September, he was spiked as he played first base by Joe Medwick, Enos Slaughter, and Joe Garagiola. In 1947 he set a new record for rookies by being hit by pitched balls nine times. In 1948 he again led the league in this category. In 1952 he set a new record for Dodgers hit by pitched balls and in the following year he broke that record. Between 1947 and 1954 Jackie Robinson was hit by pitched balls 65 times. Those of us who saw him play throughout his entire career know with certainty that without his extraordinary reflexes he would have been hit at least twice as often. He had vowed early in 1947 that pitchers would never bean him and, in fact, they never did.
Joe Black admitted that he could never have done what Jackie Robinson did, and Pee Wee Reese said he did not know “anyone” who could have. It is therefore astounding that Robinson hit .297 in his first year, led the league in steals, and was second in runs scored. He was named the first Rookie of the Year and became the first black to play in the World Series.
It is essential to realize that at the end of the 1947 season, baseball was not yet integrated. Only one black player had succeeded during this year in the major leagues, even though five blacks had played. Don Bankhead came up with the Dodgers but was sent back to the minors as were Hank Thompson and Willard Brown of the St. Louis Browns. Larry Doby, who would go on to have an outstanding major league career, had only 30 at bats in 1947, struck out 11 of those times, and hit only .156 for the Cleveland Indians. All the pressure, then, remained on Robinson at the end of the season.
In 1948, Robinson hit .296 but the Dodgers finished a very disappointing third. At the end of the season, however, there were four successful black players in the major leagues. Two were Dodgers, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, and two Cleveland Indians, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby. With Doby and Paige, the Indians set a major league attendance record of 2.7 million paid customers in 1948.Paige himself drew more than two hundred thousand fans in three consecutive starts. The Indians won the World Series, and Paige became the first black pitcher in post-season play. Although it was still impossible to say that major league baseball had become definitively integrated, the situation certainly looked better at the end of the 1948 season than it had a year before.
In any event, Robinson announced during spring training in 1949 that he was no longer going to hold back; he had paid his dues and was now ready to play ball in every sense of the term. Fittingly he had his greatest season. He led the league in hitting at .342 and stolen bases with 37, was second in runs batted in with 124, and hits with 203, and third in runs scored, doubles, and triples. He led the Dodgers to the World Series, where they again lost to the Yankees. He was named Most Valuable Player in the National League and Don Newcombe, the third black to become a permanent Dodger, posted a 17—8 record and became the Rookie of the Year. Four of the five black players in the major leagues, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe played in the 1949 All-Star Game.
When Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, he was an ancient 28 year-old rookie with his greatest sporting years behind him. Nevertheless, combining extraordinary athletic talent and an iron will, he managed to excel in his weakest college sport, having hit only .096 in his senior year at UCLA.Indeed, from 1949 to 1954, Jackie was truly one of the most dominant players in the major leagues. He hit for a combined .327 average during those six years. He compiled a lifetime batting average of .311 and led the Dodgers to six pennants in his ten-year stay in Brooklyn. Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962 in his first year of eligibility. By the time he retired, 13 of the 16 major league teams fielded black players and blacks had won the Rookie of the Year award seven times and the Most Valuable Player award six times between 1947 and 1956.On July 21, 1959, when Elijah “Pumpsie” Green appeared as a pinch runner for the Boston Red Sox, the major leagues were finally fully integrated, 12 years after Jackie Robinson first appeared in Brooklyn.
At a distance of 50 years, we can now place Jackie Robinson in proper perspective. Always deemed, either positively or negatively, “a race man,” Jackie was intent on ameliorating the situation of blacks in America. Several years before playing baseball for the Dodgers, and long before anyone knew it had begun, Robinson was making his mark in the Civil Rights Movement. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he entered the Army. After completing his basic training at Fort Riley, Kansas, despite his college background, he was denied admission to Officers Candidate School. Robinson complained to black heavyweight champion, Joe Louis, who also happened to be stationed at Fort Riley. Louis contacted the Department of War and a representative was sent to Fort Riley. Immediately, the policy toward black recruits was reversed. Jackie completed Officers Candidate School and was made a 2nd lieutenant in the cavalry. Named morale officer, he began by trying to change Jim Crow policies on the base. Robinson fought and succeeded, for example, in increasing the number of seats provided for black soldiers at the segregated PX at Fort Riley. Shortly after doing so, he was transferred to Fort Hood, Texas, a particularly difficult assignment for a black officer. In July 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks and in the isolation of a heavily racist army camp, Robinson refused to sit in the back of a post bus. He was court martialed but eventually acquitted of all charges and “honorably relieved from active duty” in the same year.
Robinson’s entire baseball career was a centerpiece of the Civil Rights Movement. Wherever they went, the double-play combination of Reese and Robinson also served metaphorically as the twin killing of bigotry and segregation. The desegregation of baseball that he pioneered proved that desegregation could work in America and inspired others to try and make it work in different areas. Jackie never ceased to push for full equality for blacks in the game he loved, not only as players but in all managerial and front office positions. As a player he spoke out often against racism in baseball. In 1952, for example, he denounced the Yankees as prejudiced since they had not yet fielded a black player. In 1956 he charged that advances were not being made fast enough and that baseball needed to bring economic pressure to the South to help remedy a still intolerable situation. The abuses he cited, the lack of equal accommodations and services to all players, black and white, would continue for another 20 years in various spring training situations.
Robinson was ridiculed, often by The Sporting News, for being a crusader rather than simply a ball player. But he persisted in making integration work. In the locker room he ordered black players to spread out and not take their lockers together. At team meals he urged them not to eat together. An interesting situation arose when the Chase Hotel in St. Louis allowed black players to stay there but forced them to take their meals in their room and stay out of the lobby and the swimming pool. Robinson urged them not to go back to the Negro hotels where they could do anything they wanted. He felt it was important that they stay at the Chase and break down these barriers gradually. This is, of course, exactly what happened.
Jackie Robinson came to symbolize the new American black, proud, defiant, articulate, no longer patiently waiting to receive his civil rights, and no longer willing to reinforce an image of inferiority by expressing gratitude for getting his due.”Future generations will remember him,” wrote Carl Rowan in his authorized biography, “as the proud crusader against pompous bigots and timid sentinels of the status quo—as a symbol of the new Negro American.”
Two factors have wrongfully tarnished this image of Jackie Robinson as a pioneer in the Civil Rights Movement. The first concerns his speech in July 1949 before the House Un-American Activities Committee concerning remarks made by Paul Robeson about black America. Robeson had said that black Americans would not go to war against the Soviet Union. Branch Rickey, an ardent anti-Communist, wanted Robinson to appear before the committee. Robinson did so and during his speech opined that Robeson’s views were “silly.” Later Robinson’s appearance before the committee proved embarrassing to him. He never took back what he had said about Robeson’s ideas, but he did say that he had an increased respect for Paul Robeson who sacrificed himself and his career in an effort to help his people. What all too often goes ‘unsaid when this event is mentioned is that Robinson used it to denounce racism in America.”White people must realize,” he told the audience, “that the more a Negro hates communism because it opposes democracy, the more he is going to hate the other influences that kill off democracy in this country—and that goes for racial discrimination in the Army, segregation on trains and buses, and job discrimination. . . .” Robinson insisted that there was one other thing the American public had to understand “if we are to make progress in this matter: the fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges.”
The other indictment brought against him was his support of Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Robinson was an advocate of black capitalism and, unlike most blacks, his economic beliefs oriented him toward the Republican Party. Here, once again, however, things were far more complicated than they appeared. In fact, despite his economic views, Robinson worked extensively for Hubert Humphrey, a clear supporter of civil rights. When Humphrey didn’t get the nomination and John Kennedy told him that, as a New Englander, he didn’t know a great deal about the problems of black people, Jackie decided to support Nixon, He would eventually regret this decision, but in 1960, as both candidates attempted simultaneously to attract the black vote and win the South, matters were hardly as clear as they appear in retrospect. According to David Faulkner, author of perhaps the best biography of Robinson, Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr. voted Republican in 1956 and refused to endorse either candidate in 1960, waiting to see what both of them would do on behalf of civil rights. Robinson hoped to convince Nixon that he could be a great civil rights leader; and, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie believed it was important to have strong black membership in both parties so that the black vote could never be taken for granted. When, however, in October 1960, one month before the election, Nixon refused to express publicly concern for the recently arrested Martin Luther King, Jr., Robinson was devastated. He would never forget this affront, and in 1968, not only would he again support Hubert Humphrey for president, but he would speak out openly and frequently against Nixon.
Despite continual criticism of his Republican politics—he was a firm supporter of the liberal Nelson Rockefeller throughout the 1960’s—after his baseball days Robinson demonstrated the same pioneering spirit his career on the diamond came to symbolize. This began immediately after retirement from baseball, when he became vice-president in charge of personnel in the white-owned corporation Chock Full o’ Nuts. He pioneered again when he served as chairman of the Board of Freedom National Bank in Harlem which would become the nation’s largest black-owned bank.
In the main, during the last 12 years of his life, Jackie Robinson was destined to be as much a loner in his political affairs as he had been during his playing days. Caught between young black militants who dubbed him an “Uncle Tom” because he persisted in trying to work through the system and an older generation that wasn’t activist enough to suit him, arguing publicly with figures as politically opposed as Malcolm X and Roy Wilkins, he would act independently, stubbornly forging his own path through these turbulent years. Each of his actions seemed to alienate someone: when he denounced anti-Semitism among blacks; when he attacked Adam Clayton Powell for urging blacks to abandon the NAACP and support the Black Muslims; when he resigned from the NAACP in 1967 because it opposed his connection with Nelson Rockefeller and because he resented the fact that it hadn’t given more voice to younger, aggressive black leaders; when he denounced police brutality in the treatment of the arrested Black Panthers in New York City in 1968, and in 1971 when he publicly criticized his friend Nelson Rockefeller for authorizing the assault on rioting prisoners in the Attica penitentiary, most of whom were black. Jackie was uninterested in adhering to any inflexible political perspective; his sole commitment was to integration and improved social conditions for black Americans.
If Robinson felt close to one black leader during the Civil Rights Movement, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. Although they would disagree publicly over the war in Vietnam, Robinson never doubted that he and King were working for the same goal: integration, and not separation, of the races in America. With a hostile white crowd outside the building, Robinson spoke in Jackson, Mississippi on Feb. 16, 1958, urging his listeners to press on peacefully for their rights. In the fall of the same year, he took part in the “Youth March for Integrated Schools” in Washington D.C.In 1960 Jackie raised money to support students staging sit-ins and also held a concert at his home to raise funds for this same cause. When President Truman spoke out vehemently against these sit-ins, Robinson attacked him in his column in The New ‘York Post, justifying nonviolent actions to end injustices. In 1962 King picked Robinson to lead a fund-raising drive to help rebuild churches in the South. Jackie would go on to raise money to support King’s work and to help voter registration in the South. He also expressed such views on his weekly radio show in New York and in his newspaper columns. In May 1963, Jackie went to Birmingham, just after the hotel where King had been staying was bombed, and spoke to a packed church with King at his side. When, the following month, President Kennedy gave his famous televised news conference—”Are we to say to the world—and much more importantly, to each other—that this is the land of the free, except for Negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except Negroes. . .?” —Robinson, like King, would wire him, ecstatic over his courageous contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. In August 1964, in typical Robinson fashion, after the discovery of the bodies of slain white civil rights workers, Jackie would co-chair the campaign to raise $25,000 to build a memorial center in Meridian, Mississippi in their honor.
I think of Jackie Robinson often, but I never remember him, even after 50 years, without asking myself the same question: how did he do it? How did this powerful, volatile, proud, deeply sensitive man refrain from retaliating against the abuse he suffered on the baseball diamond during the two key years, 1947 and 1948, in the desegregation of baseball? For those who might be tempted to think that he was thick-skinned, listen to what went through his mind when Ben Chapman and other Philadelphia Phillies launched a barrage of filth and racial slurs in his direction in April 1947: “All of a sudden I thought, the hell with this. This isn’t me. They’re making me be some crazy pacifist black freak. Hell, no. I’m going back to being myself. Right now. I’m going into the Phillie dugout and grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his fucking teeth and walk away. Walk away from this ballpark. Walk away from baseball.” In late August 1947, to chose one other example, Robinson singled in his next at bat after Enos Slaughter had deliberately spiked him and opened up a gash eight inches above his ankle. While standing at first base, Jackie told Stan Musial: “I don’t care what happens, but when I get to second base, I’m gonna kill somebody. I’m gonna knock him into center field. I don’t care what kind of play it is, he’s going down.” Musial’s response disarmed Robinson and, once again, he did nothing.”I don’t blame you,” he said.”You have every right to do it.”
Jackie knew, whether he liked it or not, from the very beginning, that he was an individual ball player, a symbol of black people, and part of an experiment with immense social ramifications for the advancement of blacks in America that would have been significantly delayed had he failed. Robinson did what he did because he practiced daily acts of courage, real courage, born of his deep awareness of community and his profound sense of responsibility— not only toward black America but toward that segment of white America that supported him.”Then, I thought of Mr. Rickey,” he wrote about a particularly trying moment, “how his family and friends had begged him not to fight for me and my people. I thought of all his predictions, which had come true. Mr. Rickey had come to a crossroads and made a lonely decision. I was at a crossroads. I would make mine.”
At the crossroads, Jackie knew which road to take, the road that led to Hank Aaron and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men have recorded their gratitude. Henry Aaron called Robinson “the Dr. King of baseball,” and King told his aide, Wyatt Tee Walker, “Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
“Transforming stumbling block into stepping stone,” as Jesse Jackson worded it in his eulogy of this great American hero, two years before the desegregation of the Armed Forces, seven years before “Brown vs. Board of Education” declared public school segregation illegal, more than a decade before the sit-ins and the efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jackie Robinson changed the way blacks thought about themselves. Among other things, he gave them a new sense of pride and reason to hope for genuine fulfillment in America.
As much as Robinson did for blacks, however, he did far more for white America. By appealing to the national consciousness, he compelled white Americans to confront the reality of racial prejudice and to redefine their values. I know of no more moving account of this influence than that noted by Red Barber in his autobiography. Barber, the announcer of Dodger games in Brooklyn who had been born and raised in the South, did not easily accept the desegregation of baseball.”It tortured me,” he writes.”I set out to do a deep self-examination. I attempted to find out who I was. I know that if I have achieved any understanding and tolerance in my life . . .it all stems from this.” Barber, whose daughter became a teacher in Harlem, concluded: “I thank Jackie Robinson. He did far more for me than I did for him.”
I too thank Jackie Robinson for the impact he had on my life and on the lives of all of us who were fortunate to be teenagers when he was in Brooklyn.In jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait, his widow has written, simply but profoundly: “I believe that the single most important impact of Jack’s presence was that it enabled white baseball fans to root for a black man, thus encouraging more whites to realize that all our destinies were inextricably linked.” Interestingly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his recently published Black Profiles of Courage, similarly underscores the common destiny of blacks and whites in America. One reason why Kareem wrote this book was to show that “we are all connected to each other in this country. . .and should be busy reaffirming our connections, not our differences.”
With racism on the rise in 1997, 50 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, with black churches once again burning throughout our country, his passion for justice and dedication to harmony among all races in America has a poignant relevance. Jackie’s ideas and the way he held them, his spirit and courage under fire shine forth through the fog of hatred and bigotry, like an ebony monstrance, a beacon, a symbol, a glowing example for all members of his race—the human race.