Friday, April 13, 2007

Finding the Meaning of Jackie

I once heard William C. Rhoden, esteemed New York Times columnist and frequent ESPN SportsReporters panelist, describe the remembrance of Jackie Robinson in the 21st Century as aloof and impersonal. As a thirty-something product of the white middle-class Twin Cities’ suburbs, I cannot help but believe that I represent the demographic that Rhoden indirectly and surely unintentionally indicted by that statement. It has, after all, been sixty years since Robinson carried what has been described as the nearly unbearable burden of breaking baseball’s color barrier. I’m not sure there is anything which occurred more than 25 years before my birth that I can fully appreciate – from something as monumental as universal suffrage, or as horrific as Hitler and the Holocaust, to the equally unspeakable annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 – I just don’t have the context.

Now, to be fair, Rhoden didn’t experience Jackie’s first at-bat either, but the very personal nature of what he did experience he illuminates brilliantly in his 2006 book Forty Million Dollar Slaves:

In [the 1950’s], when black faces were few and far between, we cheered for the color of the skin. We had some variations to the general rule: If the team was from the South and had just one Brother, his team was our team; he was our man. Didn't matter who the athlete was underneath his uniform or his skin--his true character was less significant than his presence. Out there on the field, he became the torchbearer for the race. Content of character mattered only to the extent that we prayed these pioneers wouldn't embarrass The Race.

God knows I’ve never been the torchbearer for anything, and never will. Even if I was, it wouldn’t be for an entire race, especially one whose utter isolation and invisibility in much of post-war America made your presence on such a hallowed stage as a Major League baseball field so shocking and conspicuous, not to mention inflammatory and provocative for all the wrong reasons. How truly naked must Jackie Robinson felt integrating baseball some eight years before Rosa Parks stood her ground, or how alone must Larry Doby have felt 16 years before Dr. King's "I Had a Dream" speech, or Dan Bankhead, the first black pitcher (now THAT is isolation), or Minnie MiƱoso, the first black player who also happened to be Cuban.

April 15 is more than just tax day – it’s also 60 years to the day after Jackie Robinson’s appearance as the first black player in the modern Major Leagues. Maybe it’s the overwhelming media attention the anniversary is receiving, maybe it’s a realization that sports (and entertainment, generally) was ahead of the curve on integrating our country, or maybe it’s my own version of that ugly white guilt taking Rhoden’s statement to heart – whichever the reason, I’m suddenly inspired to explore who these men were, using their stories it to learn about myself, how far we’ve come as a nation, and, quite possibly how far we still have to go.

So, bear with me over the baseball season as I hope to publicly air the stories of some of these brave men and what I have learned from them. If it’s more on Jackie you want, I trust there are numerous resources available to you (in fact, I’ve included a short bibliography at the end). For me, I cannot help but think that each new player in each new city bore a very similar burden – dampened with time, yes, but still judged publicly solely because of race.

As a lifelong fan of the Twins’ franchise, I think I’d like to start there. The “first in peace, first in war, and last in the American League” Washington Senators fill the Twins’ record books with some brilliant names, from Walter Johnson (417 career wins paired with a 2.17 ERA and zero home losses to the Devil Rays), to Goose Goslin (hitting .300 and driving in 100+ runs 11 times each), to “boy manager” Bucky Harris who led the team to the 1924 World Series as manager and player. With all that history, though, and I’m happy to say that as a Washington area resident for nearly a decade and half I am well versed in much of it, I am ashamed to say I had not a clue whom the Twins/Senators first black player was. A quick internet search will tell you his name was Carlos Paula, one in a long line of famous Twins/Senators’ Cuban players. A visit back to Gameday in the middle of next month will hopefully tell you more about him and our fine team’s history.

Suggested reading:
Frommer, Harvey. Jackie Robinson. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.
Harris, Mark. Where've You Gone, Jackie Robinson? Nation 260 (15 May 1995): 674.
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Robinson, Jackie. Baseball Has Done It. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964.


Anonymous said...

Did you know that Jackie Robinson was actually the original "Rosa Parks"?

Back in 1944, 2nd Lt. John "Jackie" Roosevelt Robinson, one of the few black officers of the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion, refused to move to the back of a military bus near Fort Hood, Texas.

Robinson was brought up on charges of insubordination for refusing the order to move to the back of the bus. Fortunately, the charges were dismissed because the order was in violation of War Department policy prohibiting racial discrimination in recreational and transportation facilities on all U.S. Army posts.

Steve said...

What a great article!