Yesterday, the media, history buffs and Kate Winslet fans were obsessed with remembering the Titanic, sometimes even with proper reverence to the 1500 men, women and children who lost their lives in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912. A strong argument could be made, however, that the most significant event that occurred on April 15 took place in 1947, in Brooklyn, New York. For that was the day that Jackie Robinson ran out to his position at first base as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and became the first African- American to play baseball in the Major Leagues since the earliest years of the game.
With that act, and his epic heroism for the rest of the season, Robinson changed baseball, sports, American society and history. It was a cultural watershed in a nation that had been virtually apartheid since the end of the Civil War, a catalytic moment that served notice that racism was no longer the future of America. Robinson’s dramatic debut in 1947 was more than a year before President Harry Truman desegregated the military, and seven years before the Supreme Court ruled that “separate is inherently unequal” in declaring public school segregation unconstitutional. Further down a difficult road that has not ended yet were the crusade of Rev. Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Act, Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, but it was Jackie Robinson who led the way.
And no one should ever think that he just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It wasn’t merely the opportunity. It was him.
Dodgers president Branch Rickey, a visionary and remarkable man himself, had long been determined to break baseball’s color barrier, which he believed was immoral. He selected Robinson to become the first African-American to play in the majors since the 19th Century in part because he was one of the best players in the Negro Leagues, but also because Robinson was educated (UCLA), articulate, and fearless. Rickey knew that any black man who stepped on to the baseball fields of an all-white league would be subjected to terrible abuse and racial hatred from players and fans, and Rickey wanted a special man who could endure it, maintain his self control, and still excel.
In August of 1945, Rickey met with Robinson and laid out in stark terms the assignment he had for him. “I know you’re a good ballplayer, ” he told him. “What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.” Robinson bristled. “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” the white man replied.
Jackie Robinson had not been one to take racist insults passively. He was court martialed in the army for striking an officer who abused him, among other things, ordering him to sit in the back of a bus. What Rickey asked of a man as proud, intelligent and combative as Robinson was almost unimaginable: not only must Robinson accept continuous denigration for six months, but he had to take it stoically, and in addition, show himself not simply to be as good as the white players, but better. Robinson and Rickey knew that if Robinson failed, in body or spirit, his race would be the victim. He was playing baseball for all blacks, and for the rest of the country too, knowing that how soon America would begin to escape the crippling culture of institutionalized and accepted racism would depend on him—his courage, his skill, his determination, and his character.
The 1947 season was a blur of racial epithets from the stands, snubs in the club house and cheap shots on the field. Jackie got hate letters and death threats; pitchers threw at his head and legs, and catchers spit on his shoes, muttering “Nigger!” and worse. He answered the cruelty with silence, and something else: a dashing style of play not seen since the prime of Ty Cobb. Robinson was the Rookie of the Year in 1947, and two years later the National League’s MVP. His lifetime average was .311, and he was an immediate admittee into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Over his ten year career, he earned the love of Brooklyn, the respect of his teammates and the opposition too.
After Robinson’s playing career, he became an aggressive civil rights advocate and a close ally of Dr. King. The stress Jackie Robinson endured as a player harmed his health and almost certainly shortened his life, which ended with a heart attack at the age of 53: he looked decades older. Yet few men or women have accomplished so much, no matter how much time they had to do it. Among his many perceptive quotes is this, summing up the essence of ethics:
“A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Jack Roosevelt Robinson, by his own standards, led an extraordinarily important life. Every year on April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Robinson’s legacy, but annual recognition in one sport doesn’t do him justice, and indeed our society does not honor his memory enough or teach the lessons of his life to our children sufficiently for them to understand its significance to their lives.. For Jackie Robinson proved what a combination of ability, principle, sacrifice and character can accomplish. He proved that one man can change a nation.