Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. By now, most — if not all — of you are surrounded by homage to the break-down of the color barrier in baseball.
There are newspaper and magazine articles, Nike commercials, a massive campaign in baseball with every ball and uniform emblazoned with a special Jackie Robinson logo, a short film by Spike Lee that will be played at every baseball stadium and a 30-minute tribute by President Clinton that will air after the fifth inning of Tuesday’s Mets-Dodgers game.
Undoubtedly, if there is one person in sports history that deserves this praise, it is Robinson. In a calculated move, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey picked Robinson to be the first black player in the major leagues in the game’s 40 years. Whoever was going to break the barrier would be the target of racial insults, brush-back pitches, death threats and other abuses, and Robinson was not one to back down from anything. “Mr. Rickey, do you want a player who’s afraid to fight back?” Robinson asked.
“I want players with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey said.
Robinson made his major league debut knowing that any mistake, any miscalculated reaction could jeopardize the great “experiment.” It was grueling, with his own teammates campaigning to have him off the team. He was the target of countless verbal abuses and often found himself alone. He promptly batted .297 with 12 home runs and 29 steals to win the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Later that year, Larry Doby debuted with Cleveland as the first black player in the American League. Soon other players, such as Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, played in the major leagues. The beloved national pastime was forever changed to reflect the nation as a whole. After Robinson’s debut, an almost all-white crowd at Ebbets Field became a mixed crowd of black people and white people alike, and the Dodgers drew a huge mixed crowd wherever they went.
This was eight years before Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of a Montgomery bus and before the end of legal segregation. Robinson paved the way for the struggle of black people against racism and segregation. Martin Luther King Jr. told Robinson that he made his job much easier, and that Robinson’s success showed that blacks can succeed and should fight for equal rights.
After taking the abuse without retaliation for a while, Robinson spoke out. He demanded respect from his teammates. He spoke out for civil rights throughout the ’60s. He was vocal about other issues, like his support of Curt Flood and baseball’s reserve clause, and his support of Muhammed Ali’s refusal to enter the draft. Until his death in 1972, Robinson was a prominent figure in anything he believed in.
Fifty years later, baseball is finally paying tribute to a man who at one time was unwanted. Although these tributes are highly warranted, I doubt that Jackie Robinson would be entirely happy. No matter how lavish or sincere the tributes are, they are all ceremonial. This is true in baseball where minorities are still having trouble. Despite the many prominent non-white players, there is only one minority in baseball’s front office, and three minority managers. The ratio of non-white players to the front office is disparaging. Baseball should not be proud and satisfied because it is belatedly honoring Jackie Robinson. But baseball is not the only sport struggling. Football and college sports are also criticized for failing to hire many minority coaches.
The sports world is only a microcosm of our nation. It might seem as if we are light-years ahead of the time Robinson played, but we are not close to “one nation under God.” This is a fractured nation, a result of its multiculturalism. In the United States there is a tendency for people from one ethnic, religious or social group to stick within that group. Instead of fighting and breaking down social and racial barriers, many find it easiest to stay in a self-segregated group. Naturally, tensions between different groups develop and relations deteriorate.
If Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson wanted to live comfortably in the white major leagues and Negro Leagues, respectively, then baseball might still be segregated. But they were not satisfied, and they worked to better the nation by breaking down the barrier. Rachael Robinson said her husband, Jackie Robinson, would be impatient today about the progress.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Jackie Robinson said. He exemplified his own philosophy by making a great impact for the good of baseball and the nation.
People remember what Jackie Robinson did and how he changed a nation, but few remember what he stood for. Only a few people are willing to commit an effort to better race relations and society. There is a sense of satisfaction in celebrating Robinson, but it hides the fact that there is more work needed. Tuesday people remembered Jackie Robinson not only for his step into the batter’s box 50 years ago, what he did when he stepped in and what he went through, but they also remember why he did it. It’s up to us to see how big of an impact he made on society.
Joseph Boo’s column originally ran in Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California.