Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jackie Robinson

Today is the 60th anniversary of the day that Jackie Robinson became the first African-American Major League baseball player. It is also the 10th anniversary of the day his number, #42, was retired throughout all of baseball.

Baseball is the American pasttime. What happens on the field is often a reflection of what is going on in society (this is true of sports in general, but even moreso of baseball). I don't know why this is, maybe it is the nature of the game. Maybe it is that it has the perfect balance between team and individual, maybe 25 players on a team is big enough to be a microcosm of society, but not so big that everyone is assigned a specific special team or specialization, like in football that unless you are key to the game, you get forgotten. I don't know what it is, but it is true.

Baseball has been a reflection of what is going on in society. I think it still is. In the late 1800's, when most of the country was refusing to hire the Irish immigrant and belittling them as lazy and dirty (as we seem to do with any group of immigrants), they were still cheering them on as they were watching them and their next generation play on the teams they followed, and with that, names like Casey and O'Brien and all other things Irish became less foreign to us. I believe that is happening today with the plethora of good, talented, Hispanic players. When they are so good that they win our hearts, they become less foreign and more American, and we learn to incorporate that into our national identity.

Today we struggle with the idea of it is okay to change your body chemically in order to be a better player as we also struggle with the idea of artificial means to enhance our lives, our performance, our define what role drugs play in our society, even legal ones...and even how does it effect the sanctity of life, since steroids and growth hormones end up tearing apart the human body, possibly causing disease and ending life prematurely. How much personal sacrifice is too much? Greed also - in how teams treat their players, how high can salaries go? How high can ticket prices go? How necessary are new stadiums and should the government or the owners pay for it? It really still is a microcosm of the world at large.

Jackie exemplified the biggest issue of the time. The biggest issue that needed to be confronted and dealt with. Because Jackie day in and day out excelled in the face of adversity that I can't even imagine, people realized that he was courageous, he was intelligent, he was being treated unfairly, and that he was a hero, and he was the very type of person, the very type of American, that we strive to be. Because of Jackie beliefs about race were challenged, and not just in baseball. It did not happen in a vacuum, and it helped bring about the changes that happened in the 1950's and 1960's.

This makes all of our lives better, it makes our country better. I would hate to be living in a country where we are defined by our skin color, or worse, thought to be subhuman because of it (and yes, I know that it is still far from perfect). I know things are not the way they should be, but Jackie Robinson is my hero as well, and his contributions have enriched my life beyond measure.

Last year, Zinedine Zedain, a Muslim player on the French National Team at the World Cup headbutted a player who allegedly insulted his mother and his sister. He very likely cost his team the World Cup, but was still named the MVP. I heard "well, if he did that, the player deserved it." Even a local journalist wrote about it. All I have to say in response is "Jackie Robinson."

When Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson as the Negro League Player that he wanted to have be the first African-American player in Major League baseball, he told Jackie that he had to be man enough to NOT fight back. This wasn't easy. Jackie was a strong man with dignity. He graduated from UCLA and knew what it was like to live where there wasn't segregation. But he took the insults, he took the pitches being aimed at his head, he took the death threats, and he played better and more gentlemanly so that any ideas about a black player being lazy, dumb, or not as good as a white player was so overcome by his example that he defeated those ideas with his actions.

I am proud that MY team is the team that was committed to changing the face of baseball. That my team was the team of Jackie Robinson. I am honored that I can hold him up as a hero to my children. I love walking into ballparks across the United States and having the first thing I see be Jackie Robinson's number amongst the retired numbers in every park. I am thrilled that as I watch baseball games today, that I see Cubs wearing Dodger jerseys with the #42 over their Cubs jerseys when it came time to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "God Bless America." It was a conscious decision by Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley. It was one that was not done just for the sake of bringing in talented athletes, but to change and to challenge our society, and that Branch Rickey told every player that they would be traded if they would not play with him, and play their hearts out. But Jackie was the one who had to walk out on the field and change people's hearts and minds. I am proud that Jackie Robinson had "Dodgers" written across his chest as he did just that.

What I can't believe was that his wife, Rachel Robinson, said tonight that she was at every game. I know what it is like when church members aren't happy with something that my husband is doing at the time. It is painful. I focus on creating a comfortable home, being a good friend and making sure he feels loved and supported, but I often stay away if there is conflict (and there rarely is, but there have been times...) I can't imagine watching him go through that every day, voluntarily, with my baby in my arms, and having people hurl threats at me, too. I know how something comparatively trivial triggers my protective instinct, arouses my indignation, and causes pain. Watching her tonight, she is also truly a strong, dignified, friendly, personable woman (who knows her baseball and is still a Dodger fan!), and she is my hero, too, probably as much as Jackie is.


Marie N. said...

The Jackie Robinson story is a great story! I was pleased to pick up a elementary level biography called _Jackie Robinson: Baseball's Gallant Fighter_ from a library book sale. It is by Sam and Beryl Epstein in 1974.

ghp said...

Let's also take the time to remember Larry Doby, who broke the AL color line (with Cleveland) a mere 11 weeks after Robinson did so in the NL.

Both men endured much to be the first blacks to play in their respective leagues, and they both deserve the remembrance & honors associated with having done so.

Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Absolutely, and I have been very happy that the ESPN coverage has made it a point to acknowledge Doby also....I was just focusing on the Dodger angle.... ;)

In some ways, Larry Doby had much more against him, because while the Indians were very admirable in their desire to also break the color line in the American League, the Dodgers had prepared for it much more strongly, and taken Spring Training to let the players know exactly how things would be (they even chose to do Spring Training in Havana rather than in Florida because of segregation issues that they would continue to deal with in future years). Doby was just kind of put out there, and even endured more than Jackie did, without the acclaim. In today's atmosphere, too, it is hard to remember how different the National League and American League were considered to be.

I was planning on writing about Larry Doby in 11 weeks.

books: it's apocryphal, but there is a beautiful book called by Marybeth Lorbiecki called "Jackie's Bat" and I will always recommend the wonderful book "The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson"