Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

I’m a baseball freak, I know. As time goes on, I’m more and more in the minority. Actually, in the south, baseball is behind college football, pro football and Nascar and in some havens, behind even freakin’ pro basketball.

I’m not here to decry the trends, but I am here to tell you that in a different time, say about 60 years ago, that baseball ruled the roost. Pro football was a niche sport. Pro basketball was housed in places like Fort Wayne. NASCAR was still pretty much a gleam in the eyes of moonshiners delivering their goods.

Some people still call baseball ‘America’s past-time’. As much as I regret this fact, it ain’t any more. Our past-time has been stratified into demographic layers: Web 2.0, PS2, pro football, and couch-potato-ing (among others)..

Once there was a day, when baseball mattered to every hamlet, town and city. When people on the street knew the score and when pretty much every town, at least in the south, had a pro baseball team of some sort. Not to say that everyone loved baseball, but I can say that the sport was so woven into the national fabric, that when the Japanese soldiers wanted to taunt their American counterparts, they didn’t make fun of Roosevelt, they chose Babe Ruth.

Young men weren’t striving to grow up to play basketball. Back in the day, b-ball was a half-court slow-down game with scores in the 30s. Football was king in college, but the best athletes in college were attempting to ‘advance’ to baseball.

Baseball was truly as American as the assembly line, vacations to Florida, Times Square and yes, apple pie. Baseball was also as white as the spheroid that gave the game its name. Everyone ‘knew’ that blacks didn’t have what it took to play the game. The vaunted bible of baseball, ‘The Sporting News’ claimed that blacks couldn’t grasp the complexities.

America was pretty much right there with the Sporting News. Many cities, north and south were gripped by apartheid. The blacks that did achieve greatness were considered freakish exceptions by many.

Martin Luther King Sr. was railing against the machine, but few were listening. It took an incredibly tough, mega-athlete named Jackie Robinson to turn over the bigot-tables. When Branch Rickey, then general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided it was time to integrate baseball, he sought out a man who could handle the total shit-storm that he knew was going to explode.

It was sixty years ago today, when America realized that a black man could enter the sacred temple known as baseball. It was sixty years ago today that the Jim-Crow curtain of apartheid begin ripping. It was a day when baseball really mattered. It was a day when you really didn’t know when America left off and baseball began. Yeah, it’s different now, but let me tell you, Jackie Robinson was the first true civil rights pioneer of the second half of the 20th century.

When ‘we’ understood that the black man could play America’s game, that understanding went a lot further than any baseball could ever be thrown or hit. When Jackie Robinson showed America how to ‘our game’ could be played, America realized that a lot of rules had been changed.

Jackie Robinson’s career ended before baseball entered my world, but it forever altered the game I still love, and more importantly, set the stage for the civil rights movement. Here’s to you, Jackie Robinson.

Note: Slarti opined eloquently on this topic as well.

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9 Comments

Filed under baseball, Race

9 responses to “Here’s to you, Mr. Robinson

  1. Oh, that Mr. Robinson. My bad. 😉

    I’m not a big baseball fan, outside of the occasional in-person attendance at Sounds games, but Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments certainly transcend the sport. Being young enough (34) to have never witnessed “colored” bathrooms or segregated buses or lunch counters, it’s tough for me to even imagine what it must have been like for him to be the first minority to play in the major leagues.

    I think we still have a long way to go to become a respectful, tolerant and inclusive society, but I’m sure glad to see that we have come as far as we have. Let’s keep going forward together.

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  3. George Will made point today that I hadn’t thought about. Baseball requires space. Space is a commodity in big cities. There may be a correlation there, and he took the point further by saying that the lack of cohesive family units (meaning, a lack of fathers in black households) also has a role in the decline of black athletes in baseball.

    What do you think of that?

  4. Good one, Hutch. I’m still astonished by Frank Thomas’ having no idea who Jackie Robinson was when asked by a reporter. This was several years ago.

    I don’t have the hair to wear my Brooklyn Dodgers hat anymore . . .

    Mack

    Will’s right about space, however, what role exactly, does having a two parent home have to do with wanting to play baseball? That just seems on it’s face silly.

  5. Mack – sorry it took so long to get to this. Those are really interesting theories. When I lived in Brooklyn in the 70s in the ‘East New York’ section, the only baseball field was two and 1/2 miles away. Most of the folks around me didn’t have cars. The subway/el didn’t go to the park.

    However there were numerous b-ball courts, and where there weren’t b-ball courts, there were plastic milk boxes with the bottom cut out, nailed to phone poles. Kids played b-ball 12 months a year, and often 18 hours a day. The b-ball court below my window was silent from about 5 AM to 11:00, literally, and THAT was the only time.

    There were two folks from the surrounding neighborhoods who made it in baseball, but they both had to play on travel teams who recognized them for their talent: Willie Randolph and Shawn Dunston. Truthfully, not that many more kids from my part of the world made it to the NBA, but every kid in the joint could tell you the starting line-up of Georgetown, and very few of them knew who was starting for the Yankees, other than Reggie. When I talked baseball, it was with the ‘geezers’. No one my age at the time (mid to late 20s) talked baseball.

    Every playground within walking distance was concrete. High schoolers played some stickball, which works on concrete because it is just a pitching/hitting/catching game (no running), but I noticed that fewer and fewer kids were playing as the years went on.

    So, I do think space and environs in the city has a LOT to do with the demise of baseball in the black community. I suspect what I saw in NY in the 70s is still true in most major cities.

    Re the ‘lack of father’ thesis, I dunno. There is a great, perhaps mythical, tradition of fathers playing catch with sons – even a wonderful baseball book written by the poet Donald Hall with that title. And yeah, I did play some catch with the old man, but truth is, I played 90% of my catch with other kids. We had space in the world I grew up in.

    I did attempt to pass along my love of baseball with my kids. My daughter is apathetic. Son #1 has moved to football. Only son #2 shows interest in baseball. I did play hours and hours and hours of catch with the boys, but a lot of that was actually for me.

    All of that is to say, I do think that the space argument is a valid one, but I also think that the general popularity of football and the overwhelming interest in pro-b-ball in major cities, compared with the leisurely pace of baseball has a lot to do with the evolution.

  6. Mark – I had a great replica Brooklyn Dodger baseball hat, but son #2 ripped it off. I usually look funny in hats, but with that hat, I didn’t care.

  7. Enjoyed your post. Robinson kicked the door down for legions of people. I’d hate to think of the verbal abuse he and his family suffered during that time.

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  9. I have a keen analytical vision just for detail and may foresee problems just before they will occur.

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