Jackie Robinson: A hero for all time

April 22, 2013
Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

By Ruthe Latta

Growing up in Chicago in the 1950s as the sister of two older brothers, sports was a big deal in our household.   Both of my brothers played sports and they both saw themselves as budding superstars in the making.  Back then, the sport of choice in our neighborhood was baseball, and one name was revered above all in baseball – that name was Jackie Robinson.

Both of my brothers played in the local Jackie Robinson Little League.  My oldest brother Reggie played second base, just as Jackie had.  Middle brother Joseph fancied himself as Jackie Robinson personified as he rounded the bases at lightning speed in another attempt to steal home.  I’m sure every young black male in our neighborhood who donned the uniform – and even those who didn’t – strived to see a bit of Jackie Robinson in themselves when they looked in the mirror.

It wouldn’t be until we got older and experienced “the what and the why” of open housing marches, church bombings, and opposition to school desegregation that we kids came to understand what a powerful symbol Jackie Robinson was in our community.  Sure, he could play baseball like nobody’s business.  But Jackie Robinson symbolized way more than playing baseball; he stood even more for how you play the game of life.

As black children in an America whose racial attitudes were slowly changing, our parents tried to shield us from the harsh realities of the inequities that we might face.  Many of them had grown up in the segregated South and had come north in search of more opportunity and a better life.  What they found was a world where the rules weren’t that different; the same game was just played out more subtly.  Instead of legal, or de jure, inequities, they found de facto inequities, or those that were just enforced by unwritten and unspoken habit or custom.

The accomplishments of Jackie Robinson on the baseball diamond were proof to our elders that things not only could change, but that they would change.  But change would come with hard work and sacrifice.

It must have been difficult for one man to bear the fortunes of an entire race of people on his shoulders.  But Jackie Robinson bore up under the stress with dignity.  The more he was snubbed by training camps and stadiums in Florida in the off-season, the more he let his expertise on the field be his response.  The more he was taunted and jeered with racial epithets by teammates, opponents, spectators, and even managers with bigoted racial attitudes, the more these ignorant episodes seemed to spur Robinson on to still greater achievements.

By the end of his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – six months after he became the first African American player in major league baseball since the 1880s – Jackie Robinson had proven his detractors wrong.

He was named recipient of Major League Baseball’s inaugural Rookie of the Year Award in 1947.  During the season, Robinson played in 151 games for the Dodgers. He racked up 175 hits, scored 125 runs, had a .297 batting average, and led the National League in stolen bases, with 29.

During his 10 years as a Dodger, Robinson played in six World Series, and six consecutive All-Star Games (1949-1954); and in 1949, he became the first black player to win the National League Most Valuable Player Award.  He also contributed to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series win over the New York Yankees.  Sports writer David Falkner christened Robinson, “the father of modern base-stealing.”

Jackie Robinson retired from baseball prior to the 1957 season; but he continued his journey as a corporate trailblazer in business.  He was the first black person to become a senior executive of a major American corporation, when he was named vice president of Chock Full o’ Nuts Corp.  He was the first black television analyst in major league baseball when the ABC network hired him as a sports announcer in 1965.  He helped establish Freedom National Bank, a black-owned financial institution based in Harlem, NY, serving as its chairman.  And in 1962, his first year of eligibility, Jackie Robinson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first black player to be inducted into Cooperstown.

On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers (by then based in Los Angeles) retired Jackie Robinson’s uniform number, 42; and on April 15, 1997, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s number 42 throughout the league, the first time such an honor was bestowed upon any player of any major American sports league.  Currently, the only player still

wearing #42 in baseball is New York Yankee Mariano Rivera; he got special permission to wear it from the Robinson estate and Major League Baseball.

Jackie Robinson passed away on October 24, 1972 from advanced heart disease and diabetes complications.  He was only 53 years old, but his legacy continues.  There are countless memorials to this remarkable man – from streets, schools and sports fields named in his honor; to being named one of California’s most outstanding citizens (he grew up in Pasadena and attended UCLA); to the New York Mets naming the rotunda of their new ball park Citi Field after Jackie Robinson.  The US Postal service has issued three different Jackie Robinson commemorative stamps. Five movies and plays have been made about his life, including the recently released film, “42.”  Probably the most appropriate and moving tribute is the annual Jackie Robinson Day event, celebrated every April 15, during which every player in every game played in Major League Baseball that day takes the field wearing number 42.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was truly the manner of hero you don’t see every day; his memory and example earned him the right to be remembered as a hero for all of us.  Robinson’s former teammate, PeeWee Reese, was once quoted as saying, “You can hate a man for many reasons; color is not one of them.”

Well said, PeeWee. Well done, Mr. Robinson.