Major League Baseball is celebrating Jackie Robinson Day today, 68 years after Jackie broke the color barrier in baseball. All players and coaches will be wearing Robinson's number 42 today.
I really can't tell you anything you don't already know about Robinson. None of us can imagine what he went through, dealing with incredible ignorance as an everyday thing. Dealing with it all with class and dignity, that takes a very special man. One that deserves to be celebrated.
As a player, ignoring his place in history, he was special. He didn't get to the majors (because of the stupidity of the times) until the age of 28 and still he had a 10 year career with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He retired with a batting line of .311/.409/.474. He stole 197 bases, including 19 (!) steals of home. He played good defense at second base most of his career. He won the Rookie of the Year in 1947, NL MVP in 1949 and made 6 All-Star teams.
Generally, sports are just sports. Jackie on the other hand, was more important than just baseball. He gave a face to the whole civil rights movement. He changed it from being just a political issue something that people could understand as more than just an idea. It is hard to believe that such a relatively short time ago the world was so much different. Not that the world is prefect yet.
We are running out of people that can give us a first hand account of Jackie's time as a ball player. He died far too young, just 53, but there is is a lot of information about him on the internet and the movie told some of his story.
I love this story from the New York Times, back from 1997, talking to Pee Wee Reese about a time that Reese just stood beside Robinson, when Jackie was being heckled and cursed from the stands. Just by standing with him Reese said this is my teammate and made things just a little better for Jackie.
Robinson played, and endured vicious abuse from opposing teams, from beanballs and spikings to racial epithets and spitting. Robinson had promised Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, that for at least his first two years in the major leagues, he would hold his tongue and his fists, no matter the provocation. And one day -- it was probably in Cincinnati, Reese recalled, in 1947 or 1948 -- the attack was so nasty that Reese walked over to Robinson and put his hand on the black man's shoulder.
"Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson recalled, as quoted in the forthcoming biography "Jackie Robinson," by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf). "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that." The hecklers ceased their attack. "I will never forget it," Robinson said.
But Reese's attitude, including that defining gesture of solidarity on the field that they were, in the end, teammates and brothers under the skin, did not come from a save-the-world mentality.
"Something in my gut reacted to the moment," Reese said. "Something about -- what? -- the unfairness of it? The injustice of it? I don't know."
The moment was included in the movie 42 and there is a great children's book about that moment.
And we all know there was a Canadian connection to the Jackie Robinson story. The Dodgers had a Triple A team in Montreal and Branch Rickey thought that Montreal would be the best spot to start Robinson's time with the Dodgers organization. Not that he needed a year in the minors, but then baseball needed a year to prepare itself for him. Everything I've read says that the people of Montreal treated Jackie and his wife well.
Mr. Robinson's triumph culminated in the final game of Little World Series. With chants of "We want Robinson" raining down from the stands, he scored the final run and led the Royals to the championship. Delirious fans hoisted Mr. Robinson on their shoulders and mobbed him when he emerged after the game. The ensuing chase led sports reporter Sam Maltin to famously observe, "It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching on its mind."
I wish I had seen him play. You get to see little clips of him, but I don't think we get a real view of how terrific a player he was. I think you would have to had seen him play to get how good he was.