Today’s post is about one of my heroes – even though he died before I was born. He is Jackie Robinson who in 1947 became the first black player to play in modern Major League Baseball (MLB) breaking the sport’s colour barrier.
I say “modern” quite deliberately as the ban on blacks – which lasted for 60 years – is an example of what I call an “invented tradition”. For blacks and whites had played together in the 19th century. Some say the ban came about when Cap Anson shouted “Get that nigger* off the field!” at black pitcher George Storey and refused to accept his pitch and that he was so powerful (like W G Grace in cricket at the same time) that if he didn’t want a black man pitching to him a black man didn’t pitch to him. Wither or not that is true the ban begun.
Except it wasn’t really a ban because unlike say women playing football with men today there was no law either in the US or baseball itself that forbade integrated sport. It was more a gentlemen’s agreement backed up by threats not to play against any franchise that broke ranks. So the blacks had to from their own Leagues – the Negro Leagues – so they could play.
It would be nice to say Robinson was signed out of morality by Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey but the cynic in me thinks it was because attendances in the white game were going through the floor. His franchise was down to 5,000 and even Boston was down to 4,000. In sport then as now it’s all about the Green as an American would say.
Two aspects of Robinson’s signing were interesting. The first is that some people thought Rickey was an opportunist thief who was stealing black players from their real owners. This was plainly nonsense as black players belonged in the Majors (Storey won 30 games the year before the Anson incident mentioned above) Secondly most people agree that Robinson was not the best black player in baseball at the time of his signing. Most people thought Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige or Monte Irwin were more worthy of the honour. But sport – and never more so than when one is breaking down a taboo – is not just about ability. Temperament and the ability to perform under pressure are also important. And Robinson was under pressure like no man before or since.
Imagine you are Jackie Robinson. You MUST play well otherwise racists will say your failure to do so proves that blacks are inferior. You are going to get racist remarks and taunts thrown at you. You will have players spiking you as they slide into base or deliberately shove you as they run on to the next base. You have to sit in a blacks only section of a bus depot. You have the manager of the Triple A team you are sent to in order to prepare for the Majors ask for you to be sent to any other Dodger affiliate (quite rightly Rickey refused). And you have to turn the other cheek. For if you get in a fight the experiment is over. (In passing imagine if Robinson had broken the colour bar in 2015 not 1947. Think of the abuse he would have got on Twitter).
Robinson did not get involved in a fight. He played well. His average in 1947 was .297 and he was Rookie of the Year. His career average was .311 and he had 137 home runs and 734 RBIs He helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1955. But the key was that he was a success. And when the pioneer succeeds the rest follow and great players like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays got their chance.Ironically the Negro Leagues who had their best talent “creamed off” by MLB eventually folded. They shouldn’t have been needed – but if they hadn’t existed where would Robinson and the other black players have developed their skills?
There is another reason for baseball to be proud of Jackie Robinson. Because when MLB became integrated in 1947 it was ahead of American society. For in 1947 “Jim Crow” laws which enforced racial segregation were still in force. It was not until 1954 that the Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case ruled that racially segregated schools were ruled to be unconstitutional.It wasn’t until 1955 that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white as the law said she should And it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed that US law caught up with baseball. A contrast by the way to sport’s woeful record on gender equality where it lags behind society.
And baseball is proud of Jackie Robinson. In 1997 his number 42 was retired by MLB**. No player can wear it except on April 15th which is “Jackie Robinson Day” in the Majors and every player in MLB wears it. Some idiot on ESPN said last year that Jackie Robinson Day shouldn’t be held very year but that is plainly tripe. After all Martin Luther King Day is celebrated every year and he is society’s equivalent to Robinson. in fact I think MLB should make sure all 30 franchises play on April 15th – weather permitting of course! – regardless of what day it falls on in the same way that the Reds always open the season at home.
Tomorrow when I watch baseball and see a great feat by a black player I will remember Jackie Robinson as but for his bravery under pressure the feat might not have happened. He is sport’s Nelson Mandela. Truly a hero.
*That is two posts in a row the word “nigger” has appeared. I don’t intend to make a habit of it.
**Any player that wore 42 at the time the number was retired was allowed to carry on wearing it until he retired. Fittingly the last player to wear 42 on an every day basis was Mariano Rivera – a great black player in his own right.