16 April 2017

Jackie Robinson

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of one of the most important events in US history.  It, and the actor in the drama, if you will, should be commemorated--though not exactly for the reasons that they are.

On 15 April 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first regular-season game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  It is often said that on that day, he "integrated" the "national pastime."  It is true that he was the first openly, visibly black man to appear in a modern major league baseball game.  That is, if you define "modern major league" as today's National and American Leagues.  Before 1901, though, the American League didn't exist and the National League's chief competition--the other major league, if you will--was the American Association.

The Toledo Blue Stockings joined the Association, as it was called (in contrast to the NL, which was usually referred to as "The League") in 1884.  Prior to that, it had played five years in a minor league.  On its roster was a fellow named Moses Fleetwood Walker.  

He was a slick-fielding, light-hitting catcher who joined the Blue Stockings in 1883 and remained with them when they made the move to the Association the following year.  During that time, "Cap" Anson, player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings (one of the powerhouse teams of that time), refused to let his squad play a rival with a black man on its roster.  Of course, Anson didn't refer to Walker--who was usually known as "Fleetwood"--as a black man.  Rather, he used a word that rhymes with "bigger".

Injuries limited Walker to one season on the 'Stockings.  He extended his playing career in the minor leagues by another five seasons.  By that time, his injuries (In those days, catchers didn't have mitts, or any of the other protective equipment they have now!) and the racism he endured took their toll on him.  During his teams' road trips, he sometimes slept on park benches because no hotel or rooming house would accommodate him, and he endured everything from insults to death threats to having projectiles hurled his way.

Image result for Jackie Robinson bicycle
Jackie Robinson signing autographs on the steps of his Brooklyn home.  His wife, Rachel, is at his side.  Today, at age 94, she is strong and beautiful.

Robinson endured all of those things, too, throughout his career.  Add that to the fact that he made his debut at age 28--five to eight years later than players typically begin their major league careers (Prior to his Dodger debut, Robinson played in the Negro American League and served in World War II.)--and you realize that it's a miracle he lasted ten seasons in the major leagues.  He retired when the Dodgers traded him, saying he didn't want to play as a shadow of what he had been.  But it's hard not to think that, as tough as he was, he'd simply had enough.

So, when I bring up Walker, I mean absolutely no disrespect to Robinson, who remains one of the athletes I admire most.  After Walker retired, Anson--who had a lot of influence among baseball administrators and team owners of the time--got the major leagues to make a "gentleman's agreement" not to hire black players.

And major league baseball teams followed it, until Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey brought Robinson aboard.  At least, they believed they did.  I can't help but to think that other black men played "stealth" on major league rosters before Robinson.

Long before Spike Lee made his claim, rumors abounded that Babe Ruth was black.  Part of the reason for that is that he had some Negroid features. Also, he was born in a section of Baltimore where many African-Americans lived and ended up in an orphanage there.  Beyond that, few details about his childhood exist.  Throughout his life, Ruth had many black friends, was a denizen of Harlem during the "Roaring Twenties", played in--and sometimes organized--exhibition games between white major leaguers and Negro Major League players (something the owners of major league teams as well as the major league baseball commissioner frowned upon), and voiced his wish to see the major leagues integrated.  For all of that, he was taunted and threatened, by fans as well as players like Ty Cobb, who once refused to go on an off-season hunting trip because he didn't want to share a cabin with "no N----".

Whether or not Ruth was in fact black, I can't help but to wonder whether other light-skinned black players donned major league uniforms.  After all, more than a few such people--including the father of a friend of mine--essentially changed their racial status by moving from the South to the North or the West Coast.  My friend's father was born and raised in Virginia which, like other Southern states, had the "one drop" rule. He came to New York, which had no such law and where no one questioned his race.  He married a white woman whose parents, from what my friend tells me, never realized that their daughter married a "black" man!

Now, if he and others changed their race by changing their abode, who is to say that some baseball player or another didn't do it--and make it to the major leagues?  I'm not saying that such a thing indeed happened--I have no evidence for that--I am only raising the possibility that it could have happened.  

Whether or not it did, and whether or not Babe Ruth was black, or whether or not any blacks wore major league uniforms during the six decades between Walker's retirement and Robinson's debut, Jackie Robinson should be honored as a hero.  He was ineffably and openly black at a time when even the Armed Forces (in which he served during World War II) were segregated.  And, even though Major League audiences didn't get to see him during what might have been a couple (or even a few) of his best years, he retired as one of the best second basemen in the history of the game. (Some say he was the best.)  He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and, in perhaps his greatest baseball honor, in 1997 his number (42) became the only one that, to this day, is "universally" retired by all major league teams.


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  2. Wow. I had never heard the intriguing claim about Babe Ruth being black, or perhaps of mixed race. These days, a DNA test could easily confirm the veracity of that claim, assuming there's a swatch of his hair someplace, or perhaps he still has living heirs. Yes, Jackie Robinson was obviously one of the most significant professional athletes in history. I was born too late to see him play on TV, but Willie Mays, Elston Howard and Satchel Paige were among my early baseball heroes.

  3. This anniversary is most poignant and piercing now. We have long seen the events of '47 you speak of as the beginning of a long narrative. It continues with the civil rights movement and on up to the inauguration of a black president. People spoke of "post racist America" eight years ago.

    But all through the Obama years I sensed the growth of a new and revitalized racism. Maybe he became president at a point too early in the saga of racism in America. The reaction against PC speech means simply that 30-40% of the population want the freedom to use that word that rhymes with "bigger". And the implications of that are horrible. There are people in power who would set many clocks back over a half a century.


  4. MT--I wasn't around when Jackie Robinson played. But I've heard and read a lot about him. I saw Willie Mays late in his career, and he became one of my baseball heroes as well.

    Leo--Perhaps a law of physics applies to what you've said: For every reaction, there is a reaction. The KKK was formed during the Reconstruction in the South and saw a revival during the Civil Rights movement.