I’m not a baseball fan. I didn’t grow up watching the game, my dad was never a lover of the sport, nor did I ever really play it. In other words, baseball wasn’t part of the fabric of my childhood. Yet, even I have to take note of one of the most important cultural, social, and political moments in our nation’s history. Sixty years ago today (April 15, 1947) Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier to become the first black player in the Major Leagues.
Ironically, not much of it was made in the mainstream press, though the black press covered this event as if it were the Second Coming. Think about the impact of this: when Jackie Robinson crossed the color barrier, Malcolm Little was in prison at the time, listening to the games, inspired by what black people could achieve.
“A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.” –Jackie Robinson
Being the first must’ve have been difficult. Not instantly accepted by his teammates or the fans of his team; challenging the paradigm that the color line was not to be crossed, a paradigm that many folks grew up believing, accepting, and living by. The racial epithets from other coaches, the death threats, opposing players refusing to take the same field as him – all alone, the only black man in the game, handling that kind of pressure, is a testament to how tough he was. His was an exercise of self-control.
Being a trailblazer is unimaginably difficult. I don’t know what it must have been like to live with the fear of failure (not just of playing in the big leagues, but to let down the hopes and dreams of an entire people) or the fear of success (to be a symbol of democracy and equality). The crap he had to go through and take … yes, he was angry. If anyone had a right to be angry, he certainly had that right. It took a restraint few of us have to not lash out, but instead channel it and use it as fuel. How he played the game, as a rookie, is a testament to the type of player he was.
Suffering so that others could come after him.
We take a lot of things for granted today, black and white folk alike. Black folks forget just how hard it was. We often take for granted the strides and struggle done for us by our grandparents. Grand parents – those are stories that can still be told. White folks, well, sixty years wasn’t that long ago. When I hear things like “why do we need a “Black Miss America” a “Black Expo” or a Black whatever?”, again, sixty years ago we needed a Black press. We did for ourselves when it wasn’t being done in the “mainstream”.
There are times when sports are a mirror to our society, showing us who we are as well as who we could be. Today, when the story of Jackie Robinson has him almost faded into myth like some African-American god of integration, only 9% of baseball players are black, but 44% are minority. That’s a lasting victory and legacy. (Jonathan Eig has a book out on Jackie Robinson called Opening Day that I can’t wait to read.)
As a part of the remembrances that are going on today, some players don’t feel worthy to wear #42. I respect that position. It’s hard to see greatness and measure yourself against it; to examine yourself and how you are living up to that legacy. However, you can’t have too many people involved in celebrating this day or this man.
(A special shout out to the memory of the Indianapolis Clowns and the other Negro League teams.)