On April 15th 2009, a new custom was established in baseball. Since then, every day on this date, all uniformed baseball personnel would wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42 in honor of this great ball player and American.
It was on this historic date in 1947, that he took the ball and bat at Ebbetts Field to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke the color barrier in baseball with grace and perseverance. He suffered for the cause of the Negro and for all minority men and women in sports. 2012 marks the 65th anniversary of an integrated game of baseball. This year, April 15th passed quietly on a weekend when millions were commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Three figures of recent memory resemble Jesus and his mission. Mahatma Gandhi (d 1948) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (d 1968) entered public service for the sake of justice and ultimately gave their lives for it: Gandhi, to win India’s independence, and King, to implement Civil Rights in the United States. The events that unfolded in their lives became the context for their respective missions. They spoke of freedom in simple, profound, and authoritative words, drawing people from disparate places. The unjust oppression of the powerless provoked their reaction. In the face of legal but immoral laws, they resisted, but non-violently. Though Gandhi and King saw the inevitable dangers threatening their message, they accepted the real possibility of dying for their respective causes.
Jackie Robinson (1919-72) was not martyred for his cause. But he was a hero and a pioneer for having laid the groundwork for the mission of Martin Luther King, Jr. Between 1942-46, the future major league ball player served in a segregated US Army. As the son of a Georgian sharecropper keenly aware of racial prejudice, he barely escaped court martial when he refused to move to the back of a bus.
Once honorably discharged, he prepared for the difficult and great mission ahead, as yet unknown to him. Robinson was gifted as an all-round sportsman and played in the black leagues. Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of Brooklyn’s International League farm club had been scouting the black leagues for an additional player for the Dodger roster. Rickey was impressed with Robinson, who on October 23rd 1945, formally signed a contract with the Montreal Royals. This came only after a long conversation between the two.
Rickey warned Robinson that, as the first black man to play in the major leagues, he dared not retaliate against prejudice. “I don’t want a player who can fight back,” declared Rickey when interviewing Robinson. “I want a player who is brave enough not to fight back.” Rickey questioned him: “Suppose they hit your cheek.” I have two cheeks, Mr. Rickey, Jackie replied. “Jackie, no matter what happens on the playing field, you can’t fight back, you can’t fight back,” Rickey intoned.
The soft-spoken Robinson took his mother’s advice and prayed for guidance. He sought counsel from his minister whose wisdom struck a chord: “Jackie, what would happen to colored people if you undertook this mission? It’s a big thing for all of us. What kind of a man are you to face this challenge,” prodded the minister.
In 1947, six days before the opening of the new season, the Dodger management called Jackie up to the major leagues and made history by breaking through the color barrier. He was mocked, derided, and called names. Jackie kept his word and turned the other cheek. It is said that Robinson turned his cheek so many times, that, after a while, he had no more checks to turn. He was roughed up and, on one occasion, sustained a seven-inch gash in his leg.
He kept his word and didn’t retaliate.
Once in 1948, his teammate, Pee Wee Reese came to his defense by putting his arm around Robinson as a response to those who hurled racial slurs at him before a game in Cincinnati. A statue of both players with Reese’s arm around his buddy was sculpted by William Behrends and stands at Key Span Park to commemorate this event. The example of his sterling character was legendary. In later years, Jackie’s accomplishment came to be known as “The Noble Experiment.”
A Baseball Legend
On the field, Robinson was the consummate competitor. Time and again, the question was asked: ‘Do you think he’s really a human being? No human being could have made that play!’ History’s favorite and most enduring memory of him comes from a photo in the first game of the 1955 World Series between the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, On third base, Jackie danced back and forth and broke for home plate. “Safe” yelled the umpire. But to this day, Yogi Berra, the retired catcher for the Yankees, remains adamant: he was out. That game marked Robinson forever as “the daring, almost reckless runner who could and would steal any open base ahead of him, especially home plate.” After ten exciting years, Robinson retired from baseball in 1957. Doctors diagnosed him with diabetes which weakened him years later and caused virtual blindness. He died in 1972 at the age of fifty-three.
Mr. Robinson Goes to Capitol Hill
Jackie Robinson was active in politics throughout his post-baseball career. In 1949, he appeared before the House on Un-American Activities Committee during which time he stated that his expertise was not on communism, but in only one matter: “thirty years of being a colored American.” He once said that a life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives. On April 15th, 2007, the sixtieth anniversary of his first major league baseball game, The Jackie Robinson Foundation gave a full-page tribute to this great American in the New York Times. It reads:
He was a soldier, a writer, an activist, a politician, a voice, a leader, a father, a husband, and a friend. Being a Hall of Fame Second Baseman was the easy part.
Though Jackie received many awards in his lifetime, including induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, in 2008, major league baseball installed a new plaque at Cooperstown, NY to celebrate this man’s impact in addition to, and apart from, baseball. The memory of Jackie Robinson remains fixed in our collective memory for the beauty, truth, and goodness of his character. His life shines like the stars (Phil 2:15).
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.