Jackie Robinson At 100, More Than An Icon

Jackie Robinson At 100, More Than An Icon

Jackie Robinson At 100, More Than An Icon

Jackie Robinson was more than just a baseball player. He was the opening act in the modern civil rights era.

As his friend the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — just 15 when Robinson was court-martialed — would write, “back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable, he underwent the trauma and the humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the Freedom Rides.”

The man, who would have been 100 years old today, died in 1972 at age 53. And yet the icon lives – and will live forever.

He lives in the sport that he forever changed by being Branch Rickey‘s choice to break baseball’s color barrier.

Jackie Robinson beat the critics by being better at the game than others. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, and was the National League MVP in 1949. Baseball is a sport of merit, after all. When you are better than others who want to play, you WILL play. Without Jackie Robinson, there is no Willie Mays, no Henry Aaron, no Ken Griffey, Jr.

Jackie Robinson Day has been celebrated in Major League Baseball since 2004, and since 2009, all players wear number 42 on that day.

But as Reason’s Matt Welch reminds us, once the barrier was broken and baseball was integrated, the gloves came off. And the reality of the man is so much more than the face of the icon.

As the Canadian libertarian writer (and baseball fanatic) Colby Cosh observed in a terrific 2007 essay, “After 60 years of Jackie Robinson as plastic dashboard icon, it is hard to envision him as anything but a piece in a racial chess game. How many of the baseball fans reading this could describe his swing, like you probably can for 30 or 50 or 100 present-day batters?”

And it’s not just Robinson’s actual baseball performance that has somehow received short shrift in the canonization process. It’s the fact that his famous marching orders from Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to turn the other cheek at the torrent of initial racist abuse only lasted two years, and not his whole career. 42, typical of the genre, covers the years 1946 (when Robinson played for AAA Montreal) and his rookie big-league season of 1947, but in doing so it misses both Robinson’s contentious court martial of 1944 (when he refused to move to the back of an Army bus), and his first gloves-off season, when he fought abuse with abuse and (perhaps not coincidentally) won an MVP award.

There is something inherently attractive about the narrative of successful nonviolent campaigns against white majoritarian tyranny. What monstrosity it exposes! What heroism it requires! But could it be that white audiences in particular enjoy and enhance that tale, even to the exclusion of less pacifist narratives, because it goes down more comfortably? Are we doing Jackie Robinson an injustice by portraying him more as saint than fighter?

I suspect that we still want Jackie Robinson to be noble, not furious, just as we would rather quarantine baseball desegregation to a single event in 1947 rather than examine how ballplayers were still excluded from hotels and restaurants, and subjected to soul-destroying racism, well into the 1960s. When your face is unlovely, it’s always more fun to look at old photographs than the bathroom mirror.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Baseball Has Done It is Jackie Robinson’s report that during his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1962, “No one mentioned that I was the first Negro in the Hall of Fame, or that another bastion of prejudice had fallen. No one was thinking about such things that day.” He says this as a point of pride, that the quality of his performance—the content of his baseball character—was evaluated on its own merits, and found victorious.

On a day where every Major League baseball player will be sporting Jackie’s retired number 42 on their backs, while moviegoers flock to see his courage in turning the other cheek 66 years ago, let’s hope that soon we will feel comfortable enough to evaluate the entirety of Jackie Robinson’s character. Because it’s complicated, and awesome.

I do think the movie 42 is worth watching – and today is a good day to do so – but the story of Jackie Robinson is more than just the breaking of the color barrier. He was a stellar athlete, a soldier, a husband, and a father, too. All those facets of his life are worth remembering as well on this day. Happy 100th birthday, Jackie Robinson.

Featured image: Jackie Robinson, via Pixabay (Pixabay License)

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  • GWB says:

    Another man whom we can hold up as someone to emulate. He wasn’t perfect. But, pick out the good and try to be like… that.

    I’m glad he was the one to bust through. A lot of others wouldn’t have done it as well.
    Happy 100th, Mr Robinson. Remember that in heaven it’s not right to steal 2d base. 🙂

    • SFC D says:

      I believe stealing 2nd base is allowed in heaven IF you have runners on 1st and 3rd, no outs, and a batter that can go to the opposite field. In that situation, the Lord calls for a hit-and-run.

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