Jackie Robinson Made Us Better!

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Jackie Robinson, pictured in this photograph with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was keenly aware of the role of the athlete in the cause of social justice.

Editor’s Note: This is a piece I wrote in 2013. Today is Robinson’s 100th birthday, so I am republishing it in honor of his birth.

Jackie Robinson is again the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, so I went into the vault and pulled out this piece I wrote in 2013 when the movie “42” was released.

There are a number of ways I could lead into this story, just suffice it to say, I cried all the way through the movie “42.” I’m not sure why the tears were pervasive and streamed down my cheeks as the true story, with a few poetic liberties taken, of Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball, played out on the big screen.

It is a story I was very familiar; as the name, Jackie Robinson in the 1950s was spoken in my home as often as the names of the people who lived in my extended family. Robinson lifted black Americans on his shoulders and paraded them around the American pastime so the world could see American Negroes at their best. In doing so he lifted from the shoulders of America the white man’s burden and created a new calculus whereby the problem of the color-line could be solved.

The unconventional plays performed by Jackie Robinson in white major league baseball was routine stuff that Negro ballplayers did game in and game out in the Negro Leagues. The fact that Robinson did it playing against white players inspired his community. The Brooklyn Dodgers quickly became the favorite team in black America beginning in 1946. In the 1950s, before puberty, I was not aware of the magnitude of Robinson’s contribution to American life and development.

I thought that Stan Musial and Ted Williams were better, as ballplayers, but my elders were quick to point out that Robinson broke the color barrier. They would say this with such pride; I knew it had to be a significant accomplishment. I just could not see the big deal, because everywhere I went, the color-line was clearly marked as a bar to deter my free roaming will.

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This poster announced the very first barnstorming game organized by Jackie Robinson after he entered Major League Baseball. Robinson is pictured in his Kansas City Monarch uniform from his days in the Negro Leagues.

In 1955 after leading the Brooklyn Dodgers to their only world championship, Jackie Robinson brought a team of Negro major league baseball players to Luther Williams Field in Macon, Georgia to play an exhibition game against a team of white major league baseball players led by Mickey Mantle. Ironically, 57 years later a Hollywood film crew would ride into town and shoot “42” in old Luther Williams Field.

I had wanted to attend that game 57 years ago and thought I had a seat in the car, but when an overcast day gave way to a cold October rain later in the evening, it was decided I should stay on the farm and not take the ride into Macon.

My grandmother kept us up way past midnight waiting for the men to come back from the game. When they returned there was excitement in the house. Robinson and the black ballplayers did not disappoint, but a controversial call on a fly ball hit down the right-field foul line apparently doomed their fate and the white players won a close game.

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Jackie Robinson with his son, showing him how he used a baseball bat to break down the color barrier.

My uncles bought a bat from the concession stand. It had Jackie Robinson’s signature engraved into it. We played with that bat in our pick-up games. This bat though worn is still in my Uncle John’s estate today.

In 1956, Jackie Robinson did something that rivaled his entrance into the game of white baseball. Following a World Series loss to the New York Yankees, the Dodgers decided they would trade an aging Robinson to the New York Giants. Robinson resolved not to be a slave under baseball’s “reserve clause,” instead, retired from the game of baseball.

The trade was a slap in the face of all he had done to bring baseball and America into the 20th century. As hard as he fought to be looked upon as a man, the “reserve clause,” a form of indentured servitude that tied a player, mostly white men prior to Robinson, to a team for life, was used to say:

“Jackie Robinson, you are still a piece of chattel, subject to be sold and traded like cows, horses, or Negroes prior to 1863.” He would not be treated like anything less than a man, a legacy seldom mentioned when talking about his contributions to society. Some say Robinson was heart-broken and that this led to his early death in 1972.

His retirement from baseball came a year and a half after the first Brown v. Board of Education decision that outlawed the “Separate but Equal Doctrine” enunciated in the Plessey v. Ferguson case in 1895.

Jackie Robinson believed it was important to mentor young black men. He is pictured here lecturing a group on his experiences in the business community.

Robinson had a definite impact on the law, but things were changing slowly and as adolescence in 1956, I had little hope that any real change would trickle down to my everyday life. Then one day in ’63, King told America about a dream that he had and listening to that speech, people in my community had renewed hope that just like Jackie Robinson made it possible for black and white guys to play baseball on the same field, that soon blacks would be fully integrated into American life.

While watching the movie I recalled a recent conversation with a childhood friend, Kenneth Nixon, the older brother of former Los Angeles Lakers point guard, Norm Nixon. Kenneth wondered what would have happened had we not integrated the Lanier Jr. High School for Boys back in 1965.

I told him that had we not done so and countless others like us in other parts of the country the progress America has made since Jackie Robinson would not have taken place. Like Jackie Robinson, we were expected to suffer the taunts and name-calling without striking back. We did. America is a much better place because we did.

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Jackie Robinson, Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, unidentified player and Roy Campanella.

Perhaps, this is why I could not control the tears. The movie” 42” brought back the days when like Jackie Robinson, I was a pioneer for racial progress. It hurt today as it hurt 47 years ago; that same pain, yet that same pleasure too, just knowing that what we endured, we endured making all humankind better human beings. Mr. Robinson, you made us better as men, as women and as a nation. We are forever in your debt.

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.

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Harvey is Living Now Book Awards 2020 Bronze Medalist for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. Available at haroldmichaelharvey.com

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