April 28, 2009 by Daniel Stack
A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.
When I was a little kid my favorite baseball player was Reggie Jackson. I first really started following baseball in 1977. My memories are a touch foggy as I didn’t turn six until September of that year (when I entered the first grade – though today I would just be starting kindergarten at that age…) It was a busy year. It began in Liverpool, NY, just outside of Syracuse. My father was transferred to Connecticut. While he started his new job and started house-hunting my mother and I stayed with her parents and brother in Brooklyn, NY. Pretty much everyone in that house was a baseball fan. My mom despised the Yankees, originally having been a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. But my uncle was a Yankees fan, betraying the family tradition. He and my grandfather taught me all about baseball – extra innings, batting averages, strikeouts, walks, etc. These were all things that meant nothing to me at the start of the year. By the time my mother and I settled in Connecticut with my father I already had a favorite player, Reggie Jackson. I was unaware of all the clubhouse-conflicts around him – I had little realization that ballplayers were not demigods.
My allegiance stayed with the Yankees until around 1981 when they faced the Dodgers in the World Series. I was in fifth grade. After this both New York teams were pretty mediocre and my allegiances switched to the Mets – this was before the era of Dwight Gooden, Daryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, and the rest of the 1986 Mets.
Last Friday night my brother and I made our first trip to Citi Field to see the Mets play Nationals. It was a long trip, as we both live in Massachusetts now. It is a beautiful ballpark. I’m way too young to have any memories of Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, but I’m familiar enough with them to really appreciate how elements of those ballparks have been incorporated into Citi Field. And Citi Field’s modern amenities are quite simply awesome. I’m not a huge beer drinker so when I do drink beer I like it to be good stuff – I take my influence from my brother who is a self-proclaimed beer snob. And they had some awesome beers. Belgian, Czech, and local Brooklyn beers in abundance. Awesome food including some excellent Blue Smoke BBQ products. And it feels like a ballpark. No one will be playing football or soccer in it. It is made for baseball. It was an incredibly enjoyable evening. Especially with all the stresses of “the real world”. My brother’s company just had a 40% layoff, mine has instituted a pay cut, according to the news there’s danger of a flu pandemic. Nothing like a baseball game to get away from troubles for a few hours.
To take us full circle brings us to Jackie Robinson. The main entrance to Citi Field is the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. When I first heard about it I was concerned it was lip-service so they would not take any heat for not naming the entire ballpark after him. But having visited it in person I can say it is an amazing tribute to Jackie Robinson. I must confess to a certain level of amusement in the way in which the Mets have hijacked much of Jackie Robinson’s legacy from the Dodgers. But hey, the Dodgers betrayed us by packing up and leaving Brooklyn. Dem Bums! The Mets were built from the start to reclaim the legacy of the departed Giants and Dodgers. And without Robinson there would be no Reggie Jackson for me to idolize. Yes, I suppose some ballplayer would have been the first to cross the color barrier of 20th century baseball (as it turns out in the 19th century there were black ballplayers but they were excluded from the Major Leagues by the 20th century). But Robinson was the one who did it. And he did it with class. And Robinson himself said he hadn’t thought the color barrier would be crossed in his lifetime.
While I always had some appreciation for what Jackie Robinson did, I did wonder sometimes if he might have been a touch “overpraised”. But having learned more about what he accomplished, I don’t think that was the case at all. Yes, someone had to “allow” him to play in the Majors. And in this case that person was Branch Rickey, General Manager and part-owner of the Dodgers. Rickey was an interesting character in his own right, pioneering the modern farm system and encouraging the use of modern equipment and statistical analysis in baseball. For Rickey, integrating baseball came down to two things: it was the right thing to do and it was the profitable thing to do.
Robinson himself had a brutal role to take. He was a man more than capable of standing up for himself. For example, while an officer in the army he refused to go the back of a military bus when the driver thought he was talking with a white woman. He faced court martial for this incident and was acquitted. But what Rickey asked of him was to not fight back. When the slander, the racial slurs, the deliberate hits from pitchers came at him, he was asked to stand tall but not retaliate. Which is what he did. He gave his critics no cause to judge him for anything save his performance on the field. This despite the enormous pressure he was under. He was well aware what a symbol he was, how some would view any failure on his part as indicative of a failing of the entire African-American race. And he succeed, both as a symbol and a ballplayer. He won over many of his critics. His teammates, many of whom initially had no desire to play with an African-American, began to respect, appreciate, and stand up for him. He won white Dodger fans over. There were many whites who believed a black man would be mentally inferior, unable to stand up to the pressure of the Major Leagues. But Jackie Robinson stood up to greater pressure, game after game, than any other player has had to face – and all for the color of his skin, something neither he nor anyone else has any control of. But in so doing he forced many whites to analyze their own feelings on race, from his teammates to the Dodgers play-by-play radio announcer.
It seems impossibly distant, in this nation with an African-American president, that we were once a nation that question if a black man could compete at professional baseball. I’m glad that we live in a nation where a little white boy could idolize an African-American baseball player. Robinson breaking the color barrier was a step, one of many, in our nation overcoming its ugly original sin of slavery. We’ve still got a ways to go. But we now live in a nation where my oldest daughter can idolize an African-American president. We’ll get there I believe.
If you’re interested in more details about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, a wholeheartedly recommend Jonathan Eig’s Opening Day.
Note to the Dodgers: Come home. All will be forgiven.