April 15, 1947 was the day Jackie Robinson played his first Major League Baseball game. For the past ten or so years, Major League Baseball has celebrated the date as Jackie Robinson Day. It’s a nice day for baseball. There are ceremonies before all the games. All the players wear Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, as tribute and the jerseys are auctioned off to raise money for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The only problem I have with the day is that outside of baseball fans, I think most people are oblivious to it.
In popular culture and most history classes, Jackie Robinson is his own thing. He is the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, but he isn’t mentioned along with Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. That’s really too bad. This isn’t to take anything away from all of the other great civil rights leaders, but Jackie Robinson did something really special and really important. He forced white America to deal with a black man as an equal in a way that no one had before.
Jackie Robinson was an undeniably great baseball player. Of course there had been other blacks who were undeniably great in their fields before Robinson, but, this bears repeating, he was undeniably great at baseball. Charlie Parker was an undeniably great musician and saxophone player. Zora Neale Hurston was an undeniably great writer. But these other fields were easy for white Americans to dismiss or marginalize. Baseball, on the other hand, was America’s pastime. And that is saying so much more than that baseball was the most popular sport in America. Football is currently the most popular sport in America, but it doesn’t even come close to claiming America’s heart and soul like baseball did. For a black man to play with white players in Major League Baseball, and be better than the white players, could not be marginalized or dismissed. It had to be processed.
Naturally, that processing didn’t always go smoothly (I’m trying for understatement of the century there). By being better than white people at something so central to America threatened many people. The fact that Robinson handled everything that was thrown at him with dignity, pride and grace enhanced the importance of his achievement. He literally converted hard core racists. He didn’t just make white people feel guilty, he forced white people to recognize the humanity in black people. That is an amazing achievement.
On this, and future, Jackie Robinson Days, I hope people outside of baseball remember Jackie Robinson’s legacy. He used his incredible athleticism to become a true hero. He is as responsible as anyone for the progress we have made. I hope people can look to his example to continue that progress in the future.