Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 16, 2020

The Meaning Of Jackie Robinson Day

The annual observances of Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day went ahead on Wednesday, albeit in a limited way under the surreal conditions of this pandemic spring. There were virtual celebrations on MLB’s website and the launch of an online educational initiative by the foundation established by Robinson’s widow Rachel just months after his death in 1972. The MLB network rebroadcast ceremonies and games from the day in prior years, followed by an airing of the 2016 Ken Burns documentary on Robinson’s life. Scores of players weighed in with personal tributes on various social media platforms.

What there was not, of course, was the sight of big league players at stadiums all around the country, running out to their defensive positions or stepping up to the plate, all wearing Robinson’s 42, the only uniform number retired throughout the Great Game. The single jersey number at all games is the most distinctive part of MLB’s annual observance, harkening back to the story, quite possibly apocryphal, of Brooklyn Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese telling Robinson, in the face of racist catcalls from the stands during a road trip to Cincinnati, or Boston, or somewhere, “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42, so nobody can tell us apart.”

Whether based on fantasy or fact, the sharing of a common number makes every April 15th the one day of the longest season when fans can’t tell the players WITH a scorecard. It also never fails to cause a few skeptics to ask why baseball bothers, after all this time, to go to such lengths to honor a player from the game’s distant past.

The answer requires an understanding of the Great Game’s historic role in American life. On April 15, 1947, when Robinson stepped out of the Dodgers’ dugout at long-gone Ebbets Field and headed for his spot at first base, baseball was the unquestioned national pastime. The Basketball Association of America, forerunner to today’s NBA, was playing its inaugural season. The NHL was a six team league playing a niche sport. And the NFL was a mere shadow of today’s behemoth, with a championship game between the Chicago Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles played in front of thousands of vacant seats at a half-empty Comiskey Park.

But the Great Game was followed by virtually everyone and loved by most. While expansion to the west was still a decade away, radio brought the game into homes from coast to coast and gave major league teams fans in distant cities and towns, places where live baseball was played by minor league franchises and semipro clubs. Organized in Williamsport Pennsylvania less than ten years earlier, Little League was entering a dramatic growth spurt that would turn a local organization into an international institution opening the game to millions of children.

Baseball also reflected the ugly truth of that time in America, the forced separation of people based on the color of their skin, and the denial of opportunities to those who were not white. But on the heels of a World War in which soldiers of all races had shed the same color blood in defense of freedom, the first stirrings of change were in the air. Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey, already known as an innovator for a range of ideas from developing a farm system to hiring a fulltime statistician to analyze player performance, knew that it was both long past time for baseball’s artificial color barrier to be demolished, and finally possible to do so.

So when the Dodgers began a new season by hosting the Boston Braves, and the home team’s starting nine ran out to take their positions, fans saw what had never been seen before – a black man in the uniform of a major league team. In Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Rickey found the perfect person to change the Great Game forever, and by doing so move America forward.

Decades later, we still know what happened on that sunny afternoon. Dick Culler led off for Boston against Brooklyn’s Joe Hatten. He sent a ground ball to third, which Spider Jorgensen fielded cleanly before throwing across the diamond for the game’s first out. When Jackie Robinson caught Jorgensen’s throw, he recorded the first of more than thirteen hundred putouts he made during his rookie year, the only season of his big league career that he played exclusively at first base.

In the bottom half of the frame Robinson stepped in for his first major league at-bat, a third-to-first groundout that mirrored the game’s opening play. He flew out to left in the 3rd and was robbed of his first bit league hit in the 5th on a fine play by Culler. It would not be until the Dodgers next game two days later that Robinson would record his first big league hit. But that Opening Day crowd still got to see how the dynamic rookie could change the course of a game.

By the last of the 7th Boston was clinging to a 3-2 lead, when Brooklyn’s Eddie Stanky worked a leadoff base on balls. Robinson then laid down a bunt between the pitcher’s mound and first base, hoping to advance Stanky to second. He flew down the base path as Boston first baseman Earl Torgeson ran in to field the bunt. Torgeson picked up the ball, but as he straightened and turned to throw to the second baseman covering the bag, he was unnerved by the speedy Robinson, already nearing first. His hurried throw was off the mark, hitting Robinson in the back and bounding away. The error allowed Stanky to go to third and Robinson to second, sparking a three-run rally that put Brooklyn on top to stay.

The Dodgers won many more games that season, ninety-four in all, enough to finish five games clear of St. Louis in the National League standings. Robinson was named the senior circuit’s Rookie of the Year, and two seasons later took league MVP honors. But for all his heroics on the field, play that earned him the devotion of millions of Brooklyn fans, most of whom never set foot in the borough, and ultimately election to the Hall of Fame, his greatest contribution was daring to be first. He weathered the hurricane of vitriol and bigotry and did so with a composure and grace that is almost unfathomable. Robinson provided a living example of the power of nonviolent resistance, years before the concept became a cornerstone of the civil rights movement.

Long after his playing career was over and just days before his passing, Robinson chided baseball’s owners for the lack of non-white faces in managers’ offices and executive suites. The complaint remains valid today; one reminder among many that the work of building both a sport and a country true to the lofty words of the founding documents is never finished. But if that effort is fated to be the long twilight struggle of all Americans of goodwill, it is reassuring to know that there are moments that make the work worthwhile, times when the courage and perseverance of a single individual can “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That is Jackie Robinson’s legacy. Who wouldn’t want to wear number 42?

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