Seventy years were a long time ago. My father was 5 and my mother was just under a year when number 42 took the field for the first time as a major league ball player. Jackie Robinson is not only one of my favorite sports figures of all time, he is one of my favorite historical figures of all time.
It’s challenging to put myself in the shoes of my family members who were alive during that time and the excitement they must have felt from the anticipation. A “colored man” was going to play in his first major league game. Given what the technology was at the time, there were naturally more people who listened to the game on the radio than were able to view it live as it occurred. I can only imagine what they must have been feeling. The best comparison I have is how it felt when President Barack Obama was elected. There was no way of knowing on day one if either man was going to be “great” but by becoming “the first” each man would always be significant.
I was listening to what I thought was an interesting conversation the other day on my local sports radio station. The subject matter was Jackie Robinson and what lasting impact his breaking the color barrier specifically had on baseball. For decades, there has been a generalization from “talking heads” in sports, lamenting the declining interest in baseball from the black community. The guest for this particular radio segment was a sports writer and his specific opinion was that Jackie playing on 4/15/47, did nothing overall to help the growth/popularity of baseball amongst African-Americans. While I have not researched this myself, he backed up his claim by offering the following statistic. He said the highest participation level of African-Americans in Major League Baseball was around 21% in 1981. Let’s assume this stat is at least close to accurate. If it is, then it becomes easy to support the claim that Mr. Robinson playing baseball did not necessarily have a growth impact on the game itself, especially if those numbers are compared to the participation percentages of African-Americans in the NBA or NFL.
To leave the conversation with the last paragraph, is to misrepresent and in my opinion flat-out misunderstand, what Jackie entering baseball was about. It was never truly just about baseball!
There is little doubt that America’s favorite sport in 2017 is football. No matter what sports season is in full swing, football will at some point enter the average sports conversation. This was not the case in the 1940’s, America was baseball and apple pie. To be a major league baseball player, was to be an American. A black man being included in that world was a very courageous concept during those days, especially considering slavery had been illegal for just barely over 80 years. Think about that, while there may not have been actual slave owners that were living in 1947, certainly many of their children would have been. Not only did they have to watch as their parents had their “livestock” ripped away, now they had to endure this additional “insult”. There were 154 games played in those days, I think it’s safe to assume that for many them, Jackie was essentially walking into a public Klan rally.
“he was pretending he was you…a little white boy, pretending he is a black man.”
In the movie 42 there is a line that Branch Rickey says while talking to Jackie. He is describing some kids playing sand lot baseball. He talked about how a little boy was mimicking Jackie’s mannerisms at the plate, then he says, “he was pretending he was you…a little white boy, pretending he is a black man.” It is my opinion that this line and the attitude it represents was the real motivation behind wanting to find an African-American to play the game. Depending on how old you are, you have done the “Ali shuffle”, yelled “Kareem” when shooting a sky hook or said “Jordan” or “Kobe” while shooting a jumper. That was not the country’s social climate in 1947, a time before Dr. King marched on Washington or before Oprah was even born.
I believe the ultimate objective was more important than the game of baseball. I believe part of their purpose was to help facilitate change in the hearts of individuals so that they see a person, not a person’s color. Today is a special day, not because a black man received a chance to play a kids game but because two men named Rickey and Robinson dared to declare to the country, using America’s favorite pastime as the megaphone, that all men truly are created equal.