The importance of Jackie Robinson

In the history of the modern American civil rights movement, three iconic moments are typically cited.

May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated – “separate but equal” – public schools unconstitutional.

August 28, 1963: Two hundred thousand Americans participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaim his dream of a country in which his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; ten months later, Congress enacts the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

March 3, 1965: Civil rights marchers are assaulted by police tear gas and billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama; five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act, vindicating the Selma marchers’ cause.

These were noble moments, worth remembering; I certainly cherish my memories of encounters with Bayard Rustin, who organized the March that made Dr. King a national eminence. Yet I also believe there was a fourth iconic moment in America’s journey from a land fouled by segregation to the most racially egalitarian nation on the planet. The man at the center of that fourth dramatic moment was an American legend whose accomplishments should rank as high as anyone’s in the pantheon of civil rights heroes.

On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their National League season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The Dodger first baseman that day was Jackie Robinson: the first African-American to play in a major league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880s. At UCLA in 1939-41, Robinson was perhaps the greatest amateur athlete in the country, a star in track-and-field, football, and basketball. After service as an Army officer in World War II, he was playing shortstop for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League when he was signed to a minor league contract by “The Mahatma,” Branch Rickey, a cigar-chomping Methodist and the Dodgers’ general manager. Rickey was determined to break the color line, and he deliberately chose Jack Roosevelt Robinson to do so.

And not because Jackie Robinson was a mild-mannered wallflower. But precisely because he was a warrior who, in the words of Leo Durocher, “didn’t just come to play, he come to shove the [expletive deleted] bat…” (I’ll leave the rest of the quote to your imagination). Robinson was to be a warrior with a difference, however: Rickey, an adept psychologist who believed in the essential fairness of the American people, wanted a man with the courage not to fight back against the racist slurs, beanballs, and spikings that were sure to come his way – except by giving an unforgettable performance on the field.

Which is what Jackie Robinson, the immortal Number 42, delivered. Grainy black-and-white videos today remind us of a truth the baseball world learned seventy years ago this month: there has never been anything more exciting in baseball, including the majestic home run and the overpowering no-hitter, than 42 stealing a base, especially home. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with a slashing, attacking style of baseball that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant and brought them within one game of a World Series victory over the lordly Yankees (who didn’t sign an African-American player until Elston Howard in 1955).

It was a performance for the ages. And it changed America.

In this entertainment-saturated twenty-first century, it may be hard to recall the grip baseball had on the national emotions and imagination in 1947. But as the late Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun (an immigrant from France) used to say, whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better understand baseball. On April 14, 1947, that nation-defining pastime still embodied the nation’s original sin. The next day, Jackie Robinson began to accelerate a change in America’s heart and mind. That change made possible Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act.

On the sapphire jubilee of his first game in the majors, America owes 42 an enormous round of applause and a prayer for the repose of a noble soul.

COMING UP: Golden memories of a golden anniversary

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After Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium was torn down in the old hometown in 2002, I began describing the vast empty space left behind as “the abomination of desolation.” Things are a bit more sightly now: two apartment complexes and a new Y have been built on the site. In my mind’s eye, though, what I see on East 33rd Street is the old brick horseshoe where I learned baseball from my grandfather Weigel in the late 1950s – and where, a half-century ago, I had a foretaste of the joy of the Kingdom.

There were no air-conditioned skyboxes in those days; there weren’t even seats, but rather wooden benches. So fans (who were not yet a “fan base”) bought a newspaper on the way in as anti-splinter protection, the working class folks sitting on a News-Post and the white collar types on an Evening Sun. Concessions were primitive in the extreme: rubbery Esskay hotdogs; salty, stale popcorn; Nation Boh for those who had achieved their majority and watery Cokes for us small fry. Then as now, Baltimore felt like Calcutta-on-the-Patapsco for months on end. So on hot, humid summer evenings you didn’t come to Memorial Stadium to be seen, or to close a deal, or to consult your broker or your therapist on a cell phone: you came for baseball, period.

The agent of my initiation into the pastime’s mysteries, Frank Moore Weigel, I had christened “Dada” in my infancy: a prerogative inherent in being the Stammhalter, the elder son of his eldest son. Through Dada and those Oriole teams, my brother and I learned that people who say nothing happens at a ballgame don’t know what they’re looking at. Gus Triandos being about all the Birds had in those days by way of a power-hitter, we learned to savor strong pitching (taught by crafty old Harry “The Cat” Brecheen) and we reveled in brilliant defense. For if the Orioles of my youth struggled to score runs, they could do magic with the leather, the chief wizard being a baby-faced third baseman from Little Rock, Arkansas, named Brooks Robinson.

My baseball fever began to rise in 1957, when I was six and the O’s managed to play .500 ball over the course of the then-154 game season. They reverted to their sub-.500 norm in the next couple of years. But in 1960 the Orioles challenged the lordly (and loathed) Yankees for the American League gonfalon before fading to a second-place finish after a disastrous September series in the Bronx that taught me the truth of Ecclesiastes 8.11: “the heart of the sons of men is fully set to do evil.” With my adolescence sneaking around the corner, the Birds made another serious run in 1964, as manager Hank Bauer (whose face was aptly described as resembling a clenched fist) graced the cover of Time and Brooks Robinson was named A.L. most valuable player.

In the winter of 1965-66, the final piece of the championship puzzle fell into place when the O’s acquired Frank Robinson (discarded by the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager as an “old thirty”) in exchange for Miltiades Pappastediodis, whom you will likely remember as “Milt Pappas.” Robinson proceeded to win the Triple Crown in 1966, and to this day I have never seen a ballplayer who could bend a game to his will like Frank Robby. He, Brooks Robby, and the rest of the O’s waltzed through the American League, then flew to Los Angeles as underdogs to the mighty Dodgers in the World Series. But they beat Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax out on the left coast (with, perhaps, some assistance from the saliva of Mr. Moe Drabowsky in Game One). And on return to Baltimore, the Birds won Game Three of the Series with Dada and my brother John in attendance.

I was there with Dada for the fourth game, on October 9, 1966, sitting twenty rows or so behind first base. As Paul Blair caught Lou Johnson’s fly ball to complete Dave McNally’s 1-0 shutout and the Orioles’ four-game sweep, Memorial Stadium erupted, hoary south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line racial codes were abandoned as blacks and whites hugged and hollered, and I experienced a moment of unalloyed joy – a prolepsis of the Kingdom, if I may say.

Fifty years later, the glow remains.