He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.” – American League President Gene Budig
April 15th 2015 was the 68th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the Major Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jim Crow was very alive and well when Jackie stepped onto the field that day and no matter how much we want to distance ourselves from those days there are still some in this country who want to go back to that kind of society. Robinson’s first game with the Dodgers came a full year before President Truman integrated the military, a move which infuriated many in the South. Likewise it occurred a full seven years before the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional in the Brown vs Board of Education decision. It came a full 17 years before Congress passed the Voters Rights Act in 1964.
When Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field it was a watershed moment in Civil Rights for African Americans and paved the way for a change in American society that has continued since his Major League debut. Blacks had struggled for years against Jim Crow laws, discrimination in voting rights and even simple human decencies like where they could use a rest room, sit on a bus or what hotel they could stay in.
In baseball many white fans were upset that blacks were allowed to see Robinson in stadiums that they would not have been allowed in before. Players from other teams heckled Robinson, he received hate mail, people sent made death threats, he was spiked and spit on. But Jackie Robinson kept his pledge to Dodgers owner Branch Rickey not to lash out at his tormentors, as Rickey told him that he needed a man “with enough guts not to strike back.”
Jackie Robinson played the game with passion and even anger. He took the advice of Hank Greenberg who as a Jew suffered continual racial epithets throughout his career “the best ways to combat slurs from the opposing dugout is to beat them on the field.” He would be honored as Rookie of the Year in 1947. He was a MVP and played in six World Series and six All Star Games. He had a career .311 batting average, .409 on base percentage and .474 Slugging percentage. He was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962.
Today Jackie Robinson’s feat is history, but it should not be forgotten. He was a pioneer who made it possible for others to move forward. He would be followed by players like Roy Campinella, Satchel Paige, Don Larson, Larry Dobie and Willie Mays. His breakthrough had an effect not just on baseball but on society.
Jackie Robinson would have an effect on my life. In 1975 the Stockton Unified School District voted to desegregate. I was in the 9th grade and preparing for high school. As the school board wrestled with the decision anger boiled throughout the town, especially in the more affluent areas. Vicious letters were sent to the school board and to the Stockton Record by parents as well as other opponents of the move. Threats of violence and predictions failure were commonplace. In the summer of 1975 those who went out for the football team, both the sophomore and varsity squads began to practice. Black, White, Mexican and Asian, we bonded as a team, the Edison Vikings. By the time the first buses pulled up to the bus stops throughout town on the first day of school, the sense of foreboding ended. Students of all races discovered common interests and goals. New friends became guests in each others homes, and all of us became “Soul Vikes.”
30 years later the Class of 1978, the first class to be desegregated from start to finish graduated from Edison held a reunion. Our class always had a special feel about it. Looking back we too were pioneers, like Jackie Robinson we were far ahead of our time. When I look at my friends on Facebook from Edison I see the same faces that I played ball, rode the bus and went to class with. Things have changed. Even 30 years ago none of us imagined a African American President, we believed in each other and we saw potential, but I don’t think that anyone believed that we would see this in our day.
I think that Jackie Robinson prepared the way for other pioneers of Civil Rights including Dr. Martin Luther King. Today, 68 years later Jackie Robinson looms large not only in baseball, but for the impact of his life and actions on America.
His number “42” is now retired from baseball. The last player to wear it was Mariano Rivera of the Yankees. Rivera had been granted an exemption to wear it until he retired. At least the last Major League ball player to honor the number was a class act who will certainly be in the Hall of Fame.
Robinson said something that still resonates with me: “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion you’re wasting your life.” It is something that I take into account every day of my life.
May we not forget and always forge ahead in the constant struggle for civil rights and equality, even as many in our nation sink back into the old ways of apathy, and the toleration of injustice and inequity, even seeking to reverse the hard gotten gains that we all have been blessed to see.
So here’s to you Jackie Robinson. Thank you and all the other pioneers.