Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jackie Robinson: A Hero For Our Time

Despite all the hype that usually kills an event of this nature, Major League Baseball has managed to do a very nice job honoring the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in one tiny little corner of American society.

It is also the case that we can tip our caps to The Kid, since it was Griffey who asked Commisioner Selig (Selig is Latin for "evil car salesman") for permission to wear Robinson's number 42 today. As you have seen (if you watched any baseball at all today, including the Dodgers-Pads tilt right now that is the center of attention of Jackie Robinson Day), a plethora of players have donned the symbolic number.

As great as Jackie's efforts were in 1946 (in AAA Montreal) and 1947 (with Brooklyn)--when he agreed with Branch Rickey to refuse to retaliate for any racial taunts, threats, or violence that came his way--and as wonderful a symbol that he has become for the progress of democracy in America from Jim Crow apartheid to where we're at in 2007, he was, sadly, also a symbol for how resistant we humans are to change, even toward a more just society that aligns more closely with our stated ideals. After Robinson in 1947, Larry Doby began the process of integration in the American League with the Indians, and he and Satchel Paige both contributed to Cleveland's 1948 pennant winner. In 1949, two more black players entered the majors (both with Leo Durocher's New York Giants), and the big league clubs were gradually breaking the color line in their minor leagues.

But even with stars like Robinson and Willie Mays playing in the newly integrated major leagues by 1951, more than half the teams remained all white until late 1953. It took until 1959 before every one of the sixteen major league teams followed the trail that Jackie Robinson blazed. (The Red Sox joined the rest of the league by adding infielder Pumpsie Green to the roster.) By that point, America was on the cusp of the civil rights activism of the 1960s, and had already seen such landmarks as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case (1954) that ordered desegregation of the nation's schools, the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1956) that demonstrated the power of grass-roots activists protesting Jim Crow in the South, and the reluctant intervention of Eisenhower's administration at Central High School in Little Rock in the fall of 1957.

To be sure, it takes a very long time to change cultural habits--even thoroughly unjust ones--and in this sense, Jackie Robinson was a hero regardless of the outcome for baseball, the United States, or equality in general. But sadly, he is a symbol equally of heroic struggle against injustice, and the relentless tide of resistance against such heroes.

Bittersweet as your legacy therefore is, we at Tatonka salute you, Jackie Robinson. Few baseball players can truly lay claim to the title of "hero," and you were one of them.

There is a fabulous Library of Congress site on Robinson and the color line in baseball here, if you'd like to read a bit more about Jackie Robinson.

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