April 15, 2007

Celebrating #42

George Will has few peers in politics and in baseball politics, and he proves it yet again today in his look at the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. For those confused by the Don Imus kerfuffle, here's what real prejudice and hatred looked like:

To appreciate how far the nation has come, propelled by what began 60 years ago today, consider not the invectives that Robinson heard from opponents' dugouts and fans but the way he had been praised. "Dusky Jack Robinson," as the Los Angeles Times called him, alerting readers to the race of UCLA's four-sport star, ran with a football "like it was a watermelon and the guy who owned it was after him with a shotgun."

And that was from Robinson's allies in the media. Will continues:

Eig is especially informative about the dynamics among the Dodgers, who, like many teams, had a Southern tinge. The most popular player was nicknamed Dixie (Walker) and one of the best pitchers was the grandson of a Confederate soldier. The Dodgers' radio broadcaster, Red Barber, a Mississippian, considered resigning, then thought better. Radio presented Robinson as television cameras could not have -- as, Eig shrewdly writes, "all action," undifferentiated by visual differences from his teammates.

After the opening two games against the Boston Braves, the Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds in Harlem. The president of the National League, fearing excessive enthusiasm, suggested that Robinson should develop a sprained ankle. He did not, and the crowds were large, dressed as if for church -- men in suits and hats, women in dresses -- and decorous. Soon a commentator wrote, "Like plastics and penicillin, it seems like Jackie is here to stay."

It's hard to imagine the surprise felt by commentators when a crowd of African-Americans behaved themselves in a ballpark on opening day. What did they expect? A riot? Instead, these commentators saw a people long oppressed standing in line to see a small measure of justice on the playing field -- far from their full due, but a promise that equality would not be long in coming. It would take longer than many expected, though. Not until seventeen years had passed would the US act to guarantee voting rights for the descendants of slaves and to start rolling back the Jim Crow laws that had kept them as second-class citizens since the Civil War.

Jackie, and Branch Rickey, redeemed the national pastime sixty years ago today. It took years before the redemption became complete, as owners resisted hiring black ballplayers; the Red Sox would wait several years before finally integrating, and it took more before teams dropped the notion of rationing spots on the roster to blacks to maintain some artificial racial balance. Nevertheless, today we celebrate the man who had the courage to make himself a target and step onto fields where he confronted hatred, fear, and abuse -- and in the end triumphed over all of them.

Be sure to read all of Will's excellent column.


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Comments (7)

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 1:37 PM

Vin Scully's re-telling of the Pee Wee Reese story is stuck in my mind. Jackie Robinson put up with abuse from everyone including his own teammates.

(Harold) Pee Wee Reese was the Dodger's team captain and shortstop.

Robinson had promised Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, that for at least his first two years in the major leagues, he would hold his tongue and his fists, no matter the provocation. And one day -- it was probably in Cincinnati, Reese recalled, in 1947 or 1948 -- the attack was so nasty that Reese walked over to Robinson and put his hand on the black man's shoulder.

"Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson recalled, as quoted in the forthcoming biography "Jackie Robinson," by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf). "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that." The hecklers ceased their attack. "I will never forget it," Robinson said.

In today's game in Los Angeles every Dodger player taking the field will wear # 42.

Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 4:23 PM

Roger Kahn's 1972 book "The Boys of Summer" is the ultimate read on this.

Here, in Roger's own words, is Robinson's reaction to his book: "You son of a bitch." "Why am I a son of a bitch, Robinson?" Your damn book has my telephone ringing all the time. I get no peace. Some of them called me an Uncle Tom for working for white bosses. Now they're finding out I wasn't an Uncle Tom after all because of your damn book." "You're welcome, Jackie."

Robinson was given the ultimate advice by Branch Rickey -- he would have to absorb all the punches and remain the ultimate gentleman. He did this, and we think of him as the epitome of grace under fire today. Those players who taunted him -- what do we remember them for?

You can contrast his behavior with that of the Rutgers team; they should never have posed for that sour faced picture -- it will be their albatross forever, showing a complete lack of grace under fire.

Posted by DW [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 5:13 PM

Thanks for the link, uncle, and to both you and "Cannoli" for the insights that you share here.

It's been 30 or more years since I read Kahn's book. It's high time I pick up and read a new copy.

Posted by Karen [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 5:28 PM

One of the NASCAR cars had a patch on the car today commemorating breaking the color barrier in baseball today. I forgot which team did it, but it was mentioned by the FOX nascar announcers today at the start of the race.

Posted by das411 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 11:05 PM

Very tasteful and fitting tribute to Mr. Robinson throughout the Dodgers/Padres game tonight.

For those who are interested, here is The Jackie Robinson Story:


Posted by unclesmrgol [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 15, 2007 11:30 PM

Eig sounds like a racist. Rather than saying "Robinson showed Americans what was possible.", he builds the divider: "Robinson showed black Americans what was possible. He showed white Americans what was inevitable."

Nothing was inevitable, but everything became possible.

More links by Maury Allen, and a story about the guy Robinson replaced at first base.

By the way, Robinson decided to take his gloves off and be merely a ballplayer rather than the single representative of his entire race in his third season (the expiration of his verbal behavioral contract with Rickie). As a civil rights advocate, he denounced Malcolm X's dialog of hatred (particularly when Malcolm targeted as an "Uncle Tom" Ralph Bunche, another admired black member of the UCLA family), criticized Adam Clayton Powell for his advocacy of Malcolm X and the Muslims, and admired Martin Luther King (while declining to march, because he felt he couldn't meet King's requirements of nonviolence).

Posted by ERNurse [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 16, 2007 6:43 AM

Jakie Robinson is a Great American Hero. Not a great "African-American" Hero. A Great American Hero.

He was a human being who overcame tremendous adversity and stupid hatred, and who in the end, by his great dignity and grace, proved racists to be utter and complete fools.

God bless you, Jackie. Well done!