Archive for April, 2017

“The First”

April 15, 2017

JR signing

Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey

I am an unabashed lifelong baseball and Dodgers fan. I LOVE baseball. It was the first sport I learned to play, it was the one I played best and it’s the one I still follow most passionately. And as far I’m concerned, any records and/or statistics before April 15, 1947 simply don’t matter. Because on that date, major league baseball’s color line changed and Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first black American to play in the major leagues. Keep in mind, this was years before Brown vs Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. Most of America was legally and socially segregated and would remain so for years.

Being first matters in life. Very seldom do we remember who came in second or who was second-best. The Rolling Stones have endured far longer than the Beatles but it’s the latter who are still considered the greatest band ever. The Sylvers were a fantastically talented family group but they ain’t the Jackson Five. And while Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians just a few short months after Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers (he and Satchel Paige were on the team’s 1948 World Series winning team) and endured much of the same vile treatment, very few remember this. Why? Because Doby was the second and Jackie was the first.

Jackie Robinson’s jersey number 42 is the only number in American professional sports that is retired across an entire league. It is displayed in every major league ballpark and the great former Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera was the last player to ever wear it. It is truly fitting that the last player to ever wear 42 in the major leagues exhibited the same on-field excellence and dignity and grace as Jackie Robinson did every game of his 10 year career with the Dodgers.

Today is the 70th anniversary of Jackie’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. As they have since 2004, every player in the major leagues will wear 42 on their jersey and Robinson will be honored in every ball park across America. And in Los Angeles, the Dodgers will honor the most significant player in major league history with the unveiling of a statue of Robinson stealing home. His widow Rachel, daughter Sharon along with other family members and various dignitaries will attend the ceremonies. Also expected to be in attendance are Jackie’s former teammates Sandy Koufax, Don Newcombe and Tommy Lasorda.

When I was a kid in 1950’s and 60’s and even into the 70s, there were literally dozens of black Americans in the major leagues. I worshipped and adored Wiliie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson and the player I tried to emulate, Frank Robinson, just to name a few. There were so many, Ebony magazine used to run an issue each season with photos of all black (and Latin) players on each team. Sadly, that’s no longer the case.

Jackie Robinson would no doubt be dismayed that on the day he’s being honored, the number of black Americans in the major leagues is at 6.7% and several teams don’t have a single one on their active roster. Ironically, it’s the team that was the last to add a black player, the Boston Red Sox that has the most today. To its credit, MLB has an ongoing effort to increase the number of blacks playing baseball through their Urban Baseball Academy program but it remains a daunting task.

But today is about honoring the accomplishments, deeds and legacy of the single most important figure in American professional sports, Jackie Robinson. What he endured and sacrificed will never be fully known or understood but, because he did, so many others have been able to have better lives. He may have played a game for a living but his influence across the entire spectrum of American life is his most important and lasting legacy.