“Robinson, I need a man that will take abuse and insults. If some guy slides into you and calls you a black so-and-so, you’d come up swinging. And you’d be justified. But you’d set the cause back 20 years.”
“Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?”
“Jack, I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
There was a long pause.
“Mr. Rickey, if you want to take this gamble, I promise there will be no incident.”
— Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, as recounted by the scout who brought them together, Clyde Sukeforth.
Close your eyes. What do you feel? The pounding of your heart, the air going though your nostrils, your eyelids touching, your lips together. You feel your feet against the ground, your fingers against your sides. Maybe a slight headache. Maybe a growl in your stomach.
But you do not feel your skin.
You do not feel your color. With your eyes closed, you feel only the things that we all have in common. And you are the same as everyone else. You are the black man, the brown man, the yellow man, the red man.
With your eyes closed.
If there is anything left to say about today, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball’s color line, it is only this simple fact. That for years, we let our emotions be foolishly dictated by our eyes. And on this day 50 years ago, in one very small step, we began to let go of that.
Now, perhaps you feel like you don’t need to hear anymore about Jackie Robinson. After all, there is an anniversary of this event every year. This one just happens to be No. 50. Big deal, right? And in typical American overkill, there’s not one TV station, radio station, newspaper or magazine that hasn’t jumped on this event and draped itself in some of its historic glory.
Perhaps you feel if you hear one more thing about Jackie Robinson you’ll scream.
Point well taken. Now consider this . . .
He couldn’t scream back
Consider every white neighbor who signed a petition to move Robinson’s family out of their section of Pasadena, Calif.
Consider every game that was canceled in the minors because Robinson, a black man, was on the roster.
Consider every pitch that was thrown at Robinson’s head — intentionally. Consider every note he received from spectators that began, “Robinson, we are going to kill you . . .”
Consider every slur yelled by the Phillies in their first series against Robinson — “Nigger, go back to the cotton fields.” “Hey snowflake, which white boy’s wife you dating tonight?”
Consider the nicknames they gave him, “The Ebony Ty Cobb” and “The Dark Destroyer.”
Consider the time Robinson’s manager in Montreal, Clay Hopper, grabbed Branch Rickey by the neck and said, “Do you really think that a nigger is a human being?”
His manager said that? His manager?
You want to scream if you hear one more thing about Jackie Robinson — and then you realize he couldn’t scream. He had to swallow it all, every bitter little pill, every day that was clouded by hate, every summer that was stained by some idiot making animal sounds and yelling the lowest of insults.
When you realize the pile of abuse hurled at Robinson in the course of his historic career, you understand why Rickey quoted the Bible the first time they met, passages about “turning the other cheek.”
And you realize that Jackie Robinson is owed all of these anniversaries for being the nose of the plane, the mainsail of the ship, the first to chart this nasty and trying course.
Fifty years isn’t an anniversary, it’s a payback.
We’re making progress
So if you’re black this becomes a day of celebration, a reminder of how things used to be, yes, but a celebration of a man who helped make them different.
And if you’re white, what’s in it for you? Also a celebration, if you ask me. The things some of us were doing when Jackie Robinson came along would be considered repulsive and repugnant now. That’s good.
The attitudes some of us had toward minorities would be considered ignorant and intolerable now. That’s good.
Today, white children cheer for black athletes, wear their uniforms, ask for their autographs, and black children do the same for white athletes. That’s good, too.
Are we where we ought to be? Of course not. But when in history have we ever been? There has been progress since Robinson broke the line two years after World War II, and most of the progress hasn’t come from black athletes. Heck, they were always talented.
No, the progress has come in the hateful attitudes that have been broken down, slowly melted, enough that we could come from that day in Ebbets Field back in 1947 to Sunday afternoon, when nearly half the TV sets in America were tuned to Tiger Woods as he strode up the 18th fairway at Augusta.
America cheered. Not black America. All of America. And when Woods found his father after winning the Masters, he was a part of all of us, every child and every parent. And it was no surprise that when they hugged, they both had their eyes closed.
It is an embrace like that, without sight, without prejudice, that we give today to Jackie Robinson. Slowly, slowly, we work toward one for everyone.