Play Ball!

jackie-robinsonOh how my mother loved baseball! Even on the day that she died she wanted to watch a few innings of an Astro’s game. She thought of baseball as an all American sport, almost an inspirational game with heroes whose faces donned cardboard collectors’ cards. The reality is that once upon a time baseball had a very ugly side. Years after the Emancipation Proclamation African American players were denied access to the big leagues. Instead they were relegated to all black minor league teams despite their talent. All of that changed on this day, April 15, 1947, when the Brooklyn Dodgers debuted their newest player, Jackie Robinson.

Jackie was born in Georgia, the son of sharecroppers and the grandson of slaves. His mother wanted more for her children and so she moved her family to California where they became strong and independent. Jackie attended the University of California Los Angeles where he lettered in four different sports. It was there that he also met the love of his life who would ultimately become his wife and best friend, a bulwark in an often unkind world. Jackie was just shy of earning a college degree when he developed money problems that forced him to drop out of school. Besides, he was no longer eligible to play sports and had lost interest in his classes. He eventually joined the Army while World War II raged and was slated to travel oversees when he became involved in a protest over his civil rights.

Jackie was on a bus in full uniform, a second lieutenant, preparing to ship out to the battle front, when he began talking with a woman who appeared to be white but was in reality, black. The bus driver was appalled by Jackie’s audacity and demanded that he move to the back of the bus. When Robinson refused, he was arrested and later found guilty in a court martial. Ultimately he received an honorable discharge but not before he had been humiliated quite unfairly.

Fate has a way of putting people in the right place at the right time. Jackie began playing in one of the black baseball leagues and proved to be a stand out player. He caught the eye of the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who was determined to integrate his team. He was looking for just the right player to bring attention to the unfairness of segregation in baseball. In Jackie Robinson he found exactly the kind of person he wanted. Jackie was not only talented but he possessed a resilience, strength, determination and self confidence that would allow him to disregard the insults that were certain to come his way if he accepted the challenge of being the first ever African American in baseball.

Jackie not only agreed to the plan but also was determined to do whatever it took to withstand the abuse of prejudice. He hastily married his girlfriend who would become his rock and most ardent supporter throughout his life. The two of them experienced the first of many indignities as they traveled to meet the team on their honeymoon. They had purchased tickets to fly to spring training but were bumped from the flight by white customers. They hitched a ride on a bus and arrived late for Jackie’s debut, already bruised from mistreatment for no other reason than the color of their skin.

There were players, fans and other baseball teams that were outraged by Jackie Robinson’s presence on the Brooklyn Dodgers. He received death threats and often stood defiantly at the plate lobbing hits while members of the crowd hurled the “n” word at him. His manager had insisted that he was not to react to any of the taunts and Jackie complied, proving that he was better than his detractors.

Jackie Robinson was a gifted baseball player who led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the league championship and the World Series again and again. Eventually virtually every team signed African American players who became stars like he was. Jackie himself became one of the most popular players in the country but prejudices continued to follow him. He and his fellow African American players brought victories to their respective teams but they were relegated to isolated corners of locker rooms and forced to stay in different hotels and eat in all black establishments when they were on the road. All of this greatly bothered Jackie who had hoped that he would be a catalyst for tearing down all of the walls of segregation.

Eventually Jackie’s health forced him to retire. He had diabetes, a bad heart and chronic pain in his legs. He became a successful businessman and a devoted advocate for the civil rights of African Americans. Even in this he suffered insults. Many of his white fans disliked his outspoken ways and some African Americans saw him as too timid and patient. The truth was that he never stopped thinking about his people and striving in every possible way to insure that he and all of them would enjoy the same freedoms that white Americans enjoyed. He put both his time and his money toward that effort.

Like so many great people, Jackie Robinson was larger than life. He refused to give up his seat on a bus decades before Rosa Parks did the same in Alabama. He subjected himself to unmitigated insult hoping to forever change not just the game of baseball but the way that Americans saw their fellow citizens whose skin was black. He was a warrior who possessed great talent. The good fight ravaged both his body and his mind. At the young age of only fifty three he suffered a major heart attack and died in the arms of his always loving wife.

He did not live to see the progress that would ultimately be made nor did he realize how slow and stubborn some people would be in accepting their black brothers and sisters. The fight for total equality still rages for African Americans even to this day but in baseball the old taboos have faded into the past. The fans would come to take the presence of players like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for granted and would elevate Jackie Robinson to the level of a glorious hero. Eventually his number, 42, was retired from every single baseball team. He became a beloved role model for children from all around the world including a young black boy who would one day grow up to become the first African American President of the United States.

Some say that interest in baseball is dying. I don’t know whether that is true or not. One thing that is certain is that all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, son of a sharecropper, grandson of a slave, who demonstrated a level of courage not often seen when he stepped up to the plate on this day way back in 1947. 

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