Saturday, April 14, 2012

The 65th Anniversary Of Jackie Robinson's Debut

By John Schachter, cross-posted from American Constitution Society

To many wise people, baseball possesses an importance beyond the comprehension of non-fans. Emotions and moods ebb and flow with the fate of our favorite teams. Baseball lingo fills our conversations, as we talk about a ballpark figure, a whole new ballgame, playing hardball, covering all the bases, stepping up to the plate and hitting it out of the ballpark. Or someone batting a thousand or being off base, something being bush-league or inside baseball. And, of course, people invoking the infield fly rule because of a routine and playable, if fair, pop-up in the infield with less than two outs and the bases loaded or runners on second and third. (OK, maybe that’s not as common.)

But baseball as hobby, diversion and pastime is merely one aspect of the game. The sport is sometimes so much more, a reflection of our times and our society, for better and for worse. This Sunday, April 15, will be a reminder of one of those “for better” examples. That day will mark the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the so-called color barrier and making his major league baseball debut. Teams and fans across America will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day to pay tribute to the son of Georgia sharecroppers who grew up to become an incomparable leader and symbol of civil rights challenges and advancement.

Humorist Dave Berry once pinpointed what he saw as a critical difference between the sexes. “If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life,” Barry remarked, “she will choose to save the infant's life – without even considering if there are men on base.” While men and women may quibble over various aspect of the sport, there is virtual unanimity when it comes to recognizing the magnitude of Jackie Robinson’s role.

The Major League Baseball tribute to Robinson on his day includes all players wearing his uniform number 42, which has otherwise been retired by all teams. The league website devotes a page to Robinson’s story and his “immeasurable impact” on the game and beyond. The page salutes Robinson’s courage, commitment, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, excellence, and quest for justice. Countless other adjectives could further describe Robinson.

Robinson’s career numbers are impressive enough. A .311 batting average, an on-base average of .409, nearly 200 stolen bases, a Rookie of the year Award in 1947 and a Most Valuable Player Award two years later when he hit a career-high .342 to go with 203 hits, including 38 doubles, 12 triples, 16 home runs, plus 124 runs batted in. But, of course, Jackie Robinson is so much more than his stellar statistics.

“If Jim Crow seems distant today, it is because of men like Robinson,” wrote Chris Lamb, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston. “We need to remember him for what he accomplished inside the white lines of baseball, but we also need to remember him for what he accomplished outside. His life teaches us that progress often depends on individuals willing to sacrifice themselves for something bigger.”

Few people can imagine the contemptible abuse Robinson faced when he joined the Dodgers, from fans, opponents, and even some teammates. Aside from the on-the-field challenges of beanballs and high-flying spikes aimed his way, Robinson had to deal with a steady flow of death threats in nearly every city to which the team traveled. But Robinson rose above the hatred and proved his critics and detractors wrong. His success made him an All-Star player and civil rights leader.

“There's not an American in this country free until every one of us is free,” Robinson said. He knew his success was but a small step toward a much grander goal. “The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.” Some 65 years after Robinson set foot upon his first major league field, the fight for freedom for all people continues. But thanks to his efforts along the way, we all have that much less to travel to see our ultimate goals achieved.

Robinson died far too early, at the age of 53 in 1972. He’s buried in Brooklyn next to his son and mother-in-law. His gravestone reads, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

John Schachter is the Vice President of Public Education and Outreach for American Constitution Society 


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