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.