Jackie Robinson wasn’t bigger than life. He simply gave us a better perspective about it. Number 42 wasn’t the first person to illuminate bravery. But he painted a much clearer picture for us to understand what it is to have courage in the face of relentless adversity.
A four-sport letterman star at UCLA before he went to star in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, Robinson could have acted the part of selfish brat when he was called up on by Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to become Major League Baseball’s “Negro Experiment.”
Instead, Robinson gave us a hero to celebrate because of the way he bared his soul in sacrificial humility in order for other players of color to walk and follow his footsteps to the major leagues. Jackie Robinson didn’t save the world or cure cancer.
But what he did was help break the threshold of bigotry that had come to grip “America’s Favorite Pastime” and enlighten this country of its wicked ways of traditional disenfranchisement and discrimination against black Americans.
Before the Civil Rights Moment could even gain steam on the issues of equality and fairness for all citizens of the United States-Rickey, Robinson, the Dodgers and Major League Baseball had already beaten them to the punch. However, that wasn’t a time to dance, drink and shout.
It was a time of calculation and caution. It certainly wasn’t without challenges and hiccups along the way. At that time, and many years to come, black people were being treated with the atrocities of third-class citizenship, many times worse than animals, especially in the South, the established home of Jim Crow.
Somehow, Jim Crow and its racist laws of segregation had already permeated in the sport of baseball, migrating into northern cities. The powers that be intended it to be that way forever. Rickey and Robinson threw a wrench in those plans.
The real power behind Robinson’s successful furlough to the major leagues was not in his quick wrists or his lightning-quick running strides, but rather in the daily handcuff of his flesh to not react to the vicious hate-mongering that surrounded him.
Robinson just didn’t have a hill to climb. He had Mount Everest to overcome. Rickey, the visionary brain trust of baseball’s integration plans, had Robinson’s back. Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, was his main support system. The black community was pulling for Robinson to make the breakthrough a success.
But at the end of the day this was Robinson’s road to walk alone.
It was his burden to bear. It was a path he signed up for. Mercy was not on his side when he stood in the batter’s box for the first time as a major league baseball player. What he received was a good dose of N-word slurs and race-baiting taunts that would have crushed the average person into a helpless stupor.
Robinson, always exuding the grace of the perfect gentleman, didn’t wilt. At least, outwardly, he didn’t. He couldn’t let them win. He was not going to break. He would not allow himself to succumb to the vile death threats, the endless stream of hate mail and immediate ostracization of teammates.
He had a job to do. He was on a mission. He knew if he lost his temper one time that would be the end of baseball’s great black project.
Of course, he came pretty close to snapping quit a few times, particularly in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies early in the 1947 season. The verbal abuse was so mean-spirited and ugly from the Phillies’ dugout that Robinson flipped out with anger and nearly went AWOL. In his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made,” Robinson speaks on this topic.
“For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, “To hell with Mr. Rickey’s ‘noble experiment.’ It’s clear it won’t succeed. I have made every effort to work hard, to get myself into shape. My best is not good enough for them.” I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create. I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth with my despised black fist.
“Then I could walk away from it all. I’d never become a sports’ star. But my some could tell his son someday what his daddy could have been if he hadn’t been too much of a man. Then I thought of Mr. Rickey-how his family and friends had begged him not to fight for me and my people. I thought of all of his predictions, which had come true. Mr. Rickey had come to a crossroads and made a lonely decision. I was at a crossroads. I would make mine. I would stay. The haters almost won that round.”
The haters didn’t win that round or any other in trying to stop the progress of integration. History was to be made. A nation was moving forward. Robinson led the way. He did it his way. Robinson did not need a bullhorn to shout to the rafters about being treated equally as his white peers. He wanted to be treated like a man. He wanted to be judged fairly by what he did on the baseball field, not by the color of his skin.
He then went out and proved it by winning the National League’s Rookie of the Year honors, capturing the league’s MVP award in 1949, and leading the Dodgers to a World Series victory in 1955. More importantly than any statistics can bear, Robinson ripped apart the stereotypes about black ballplayers, paving the way for others to trickle into the league behind him.
Larry Doby became the first black baseball player to play in the American League when he joined the Cleveland Indians in 1947. The St. Louis Browns added Hank Thompson to their roster the same year. Both of these signings came after Robinson made his debut with the Dodgers.
What Robinson showed us is that the content of a person’s character trumps one’s skin color. He also showed us that a level playing field supersedes racial ignorance. This is what has made Jackie Robinson so revered and iconic. We do not celebrate Robinson because of what his skin looks like. We honor Robinson because he showed us that courage, strength, dignity and honor reflect us all.