70 years ago today, Jackie Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since 2004, MLB has celebrated not only his career, but for ending about eighty years of baseball segregation. Today, many ballparks will pay tribute to Robinson. All coaches, managers, players and umpires will wear the No. 42 on their uniforms.
However, there is a very big problem with “Jackie Robinson Day.” But first…
Jackie Robinson was a fantastic baseball player and athlete
Never lose sight of this fact.
Robinson was a four-sport athlete at UCLA (football, basketball, track & field, baseball) and as ESPN the Magaizine‘s Howard Bryant notes in Ken Burns’ PBS documentary, Jackie Robinson:
You can make an argument that Jackie Robinson was the greatest athlete in American history… he could have been a star in every single one of those sports. Not just a good player, but a superstar.
Following college, he had multiple short stints in semi-professional football leagues before getting drafted to the army in 1942.
In 1945, Robinson became a member of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. From there, he signed a contract to play baseball for the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League, a team affiliated with MLB’s Brooklyn Dodgers. By 1947, Robinson was the Opening Day first baseman for the Dodgers.
His career WAR (Wins-Above-Replacement) of 61.5 is Hall of Fame-caliber having only played ten years. From 1949 to 1952, Robinson was the best player in the National League. Just look at the numbers.
To appreciate his greatness, think about this… when Michael Jordan attempted his baseball experiment in 1994, what if he became an All-Star by 1996? That is basically what Jackie Robinson did.
Unfortunately, there are not many people who remember Jackie Robinson playing baseball at an elite level. As a result, most people know Robinson simply as the pioneer who broke baseball’s color barrier.
So when you think of Jackie Robinson, it’s wise to remember how great of a baseball player and athlete he was during the ’40s and ’50s.
Now… what about Larry Doby?
Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, so he was the first black player in the National League. The first black player to play in the American League?
That was Larry Doby.
Granted, he did enter the league after Robinson, but just because one black player was already in the league doesn’t make the second player was immune to abuse.
Most people are aware of what Jackie Robinson endured from fans, managers and players at various National League ballparks. What do you think Larry Doby went through at those American League ballparks?
So maybe MLB, specifically the American League, should look into honoring Larry Doby. Similar to Robinson’s debut in the majors, MLB could make July 5 “Larry Doby Day” for the American League, or better yet, the entire league.
So when you think of Jackie Robinson, don’t forget that Larry Doby had to put up with just as much abuse in the American League.
In addition to opposing teams, the Dodgers weren’t so nice to Jackie Robinson either
One of the many incidents of abuse from opposing teams involving Robinson was with Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman. According to former Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca:
When Jackie came to bat, he [Chapman] just said “Hey boy! I need a shine! Come shine my shoes! Hey boy! How come you’re not picking cotton? Hey boy! Come over and let me rub your head for good luck!”
Obviously, Robinson faced this level of abuse in almost every stadium he visited. He also faced this level of abuse from his own team. In 1947, outfielder “Dixie” Walker (of course that was his name…), along with a few other southern players, signed a petition against Robinson playing on the team.
And you know that famous story about Pee-Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson as he suffered the abuse from fans in Cincinnati? Apparently, that moment never took place.
So why does that myth exist? It certainly doesn’t help Robinson’s image. The purpose of that myth is to build up Reese, the Dodgers, and everyone else around Robinson. Did you know that during a birthday celebration at Ebbets Field, the Dodgers honored Reese, a native of Louisville, KY, by raising a confederate flag up the flagpole?
Yeah. I don’t think I need to explain what was wrong about that.
So when you think of Jackie Robinson, don’t forget that he took abuse from everyone, including his own teammates and organization.
So what about “Jackie Robinson Day” in 2017?
Even after 14 years of this day commemorated to Robinson, there is still a lot of absolution of guilt. By placing so much emphasis on Robinson and his importance to Major League Baseball, there is much less emphasis on the people who treated him so poorly.
And those people who treated Robinson so poorly… happen to work for the institution that is Major League Baseball. So if “Jackie Robinson Day” is all about praising him, then nobody has to discuss the roles that various people played in creating the circumstances surrounding Robinson.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of MLB teams were very slow to integrate black players with their major league rosters. For instance, the New York Yankees “technically” integrated in 1955 when they signed Elston Howard, but he did not become an every-day player until 1959. The Boston Red Sox, the team that passed on signing Willie Mays, were the last MLB team to integrate in 1959.
Why is all of that important?
Look at the current landscape of MLB. Look at the declining participation of black Americans in MLB. On one hand, everyone wants to praise Robinson for integrating MLB, but more and more of the people who most closely resemble Robinson are not getting into baseball. Sure, you can argue that black Americans simply don’t want to play baseball at a young age.
You could also argue that MLB just doesn’t want them bad enough.
So to honor Robinson on this day, here is an important passage from his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made: An Autobiograhy of Jackie Robinson:
People have asked me, “Jack, what’s your beef? You’ve got it made.” I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made… (Some) whites are expert game-players in their contest to maintain absolute power. One of their time-honored gimmicks is to point to individual blacks who have achieved recognition: “But look at Ralph Bunche. Think about Lena Horne or Marian Anderson. Look at Jackie Robinson. They made it.” As one of those who has “made it.” I would like to be thought of as an inspiration to our young. But I don’t want them lied to… I don’t think anyone in or out of sports could ever seriously accuse Willie Mays of offending white sensitivities. But when he was in California, whites refused to sell him a house in their community. They loved his talent, but they didn’t want him for a neighbor. Name them for me. The examples of blacks who “made it.” For virtually every one you name, I can… (tell you) how they have been mistreated, humiliated.
Jackie Robinson stood up for himself and whole lot of people throughout his life. It’s a shame MLB doesn’t do more to celebrate and recognize this man then have everyone wear the No. 42.
Do you think all the coaches, managers and players know why they wear No. 42 on the back of their jerseys? Do you think that those people are aware that Robinson made their sport better by putting them in a position to meet people they may not have ever met ordinarily?
So when you think of Jackie Robinson, remember him as not just a hero for black America, but for all of America.
Let me know your thoughts on this topic in the comments or send me a tweet @danny_shin131. Do you think “Jackie Robinson” is Major League Baseball’s admission of guilt?