Today is Jackie Robinson Day. On this day in 1947 he took a big step onto Brooklyn’s field as a Dodger.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was not only the man who was the subject of “baseball’s greatest experiment”, who put a face on the color change in baseball, he also changed the chemistry of America’s pastime as well as its color. Sports writer Mike Lupica says of Robinson: “He played with flash and arrogance and made ferocity an art. Baseball did not look the same after Jackie Robinson.”
But we have to remember that history rarely happens in big events and single moments. There were other people who were critical to Robinson’s being able to do take those courageous steps on April 15, 1947.
Jackie Robinson was not the first black to play professional baseball. It might be more correct to say that he was the first black to cross the color line who was allowed to stay. The very first black to play professional baseball in America was Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker holds the dubious honor of being the first black to play pro ball and the last to still be playing before the final shut out of blacks in baseball by Jim Crow laws. Walker, a catcher from Ohio, was educated at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan and played ball at both schools before joining Toledo’s professional team in 1884. Moses Fleetwood Walker set a precedent.
The refusal to allow blacks in pro ball meant that black ball players had to form their own teams and their own leagues. This formation of all black teams led to one of the most glorious periods in baseball history.
There is a tendency I think for baseball fans to look at the Negro Leagues as the poor cousin to “real” baseball. Stories of barnstorming days give the sense that black baseball was an inferior game and organization. This could not be farther from the truth. Most of the bad conditions for Negro leaguers came after integration of the game. In their prime The Negro Leagues were multi-million dollar operations, among the largest black businesses in the United States, which sent millions of dollars into and through the community. .
Negro League star Josh Gibson was the greatest player of that time. He is now considered by most baseball historians to be the greatest baseball player of all time. One of the games most natural hitters, Gibson played for Pittsburgh’s Homestead Grays. Gibson’s hitting prowess outshined Babe Ruth. In one season Gibson hit 89 home runs, 29 more than Ruth’s record. And Gibson is the only player to ever hit a home run out of Yankee Stadium.
Without Josh Gibson Jackie Robinson’s moment would never have come. Josh Gibson showed fans what black ball players could do and he showed major league owners what black fans could mean to the business of baseball. The Homestead Grays, who played in any town that had a ballpark available for rent, set attendance records in most of the big league parks along the east coast and through the mid west. Josh Gibson was the hot draw and fans- black and white -- came from all over and sold out every game to see him play.
Those sold out houses were not lost on another important baseball man, Branch Rickey, president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey had been managing baseball teams all of his adult life, and when he came to the Dodgers he inherited an aging team and declining audience. He wanted to win a pennant and he knew that the hottest talent in the game was in the Negro Leagues.
Rickey knew that the draw for those games while mostly black included white fans who loved the more energetic brand of baseball played by the all black teams. Rickey spent more than two years orchestrating Robinson’s first step onto Ebbets Field. Rickey was willing to endure the scorn of all of the other major league owners and managers.
But ultimately it was Jackie Robinson who had to step onto that field, and who agreed to Rickey’s offer and Rickey’s terms. And the terms were tough: Robinson promised, “no reaction, no matter what” for three years. That was not easy for Jackie. He had to put up with bean balls aimed at his head, spikes aimed at his shins and the ugly names aimed at him and at his family.
Rickey admitted later that, “Jackie had to turn the other cheek so often that he had no other cheek left – both were beaten off.” But Jackie Robinson was not Jesus and not Gandhi. It is unfair to characterize him as a man of superior spiritual character who took his enemies racist hatred and returned compassion and forgiveness. He did not. Robinson swallowed a lot of that hatred. He was smart enough to know that this was the only way the “experiment” would work and he was wise enough to know that the men waiting behind him in the Negro Leagues depended on his fitting in.
Robinson was the man who took the risk, who played the game and who changed its play in so many ways. But Branch Rickey can also be a role model for showing us that winning and making a profit do not have to be separate from making important social change.
Looking at these others who set the stage for Jackie Robinson doesn’t take anything away from him on this special day. Rather it may let us take away something that we can apply to our lives. There are many parts to play in making great social change. Most of them come without recognition and they can, like Rickey’s, come with very mixed motivations.
Few of us will have the opportunity to be the man or woman of the moment, to publicly enact history in such a dramatic way, but we all have opportunities to be one of the unnamed others, who, though unrecognized, are necessary to building the momentum and critical mass that allows the historical moment to happen.