Jackie Robinson Day

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April 15 marks the 64th anniversary of baseball’s desegregation. Many see Robinson as a pioneer who did things the ‘right way.’Others derided Robinson as an “establishment hero.” In 2009, Robinson was claimed as a ‘GOP Hero’ due to his being a Republican. Despite these depictions, we still have an incomplete view of a complex person.
Robinson was born in 1919, the youngest of five. A year after he was born, his father abandoned the family. Robinson described their economic situation: “She didn’t make enough, however, to support herself and five children… Her salary, plus the help from welfare, barely enabled her to make ends meet.”
In high school, Jackie lettered in four sports. This success was rivaled only by his reputation as a vocal opponent of racism. While in junior college, Jackie was arrested for confronting police about the unreasonable detention of a black friend. He received probation and a two year suspended sentence. This incident, and other rumored encounters, established Jackie’s reputation for being unafraid to confront racism.
Jackie further demonstrated his athletic excellence at UCLA where he became the school’s first athlete of any race to letter in four sports. After two years, Robinson decided to drop out, saying, “I was convinced that no amount of education could help a black man get a job,” due to discrimination. He played semi-pro football and became a youth football director. This career was put on hold when he was drafted into the Army.
In 1942, Jackie was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. As a morale officer, Robinson used his position to speak out. In one instance, he agitated for increased seating for black soldiers at the post exchange and confronted racist defenses of the arrangement. On another occasion, Robinson faced a court martial for refusing to move to the back of an Army bus. Jackie openly confronted the military police over what he called, the “elaborate lengths to which racists in the Armed Forces would go to put a vocal black man in his place.” After his commanding officer refused to charge him, Jackie was transferred to a different unit where he was charged with a number of spurious offenses. Ultimately, he was given an honorable discharge in November 1944.
While waiting for his discharge, Robinson began playing for the Negro Leagues but he tired of the schedule and segregated accommodations. Robinson wrote: “In those days, a white ballplayer could look forward to some streak of luck or some reward for hard work to carry him into prominence or even stardom. What had the black player to hope for?” The first commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who maintained the color line, limited hope.
After Landis’ death in 1944, Robinson got the attention of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers were looking for an African American player because general manager, Branch Rickey, believed they were, “the greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game,” and would make the Dodgers, “winners for years to come.” Jackie was only chosen after a secret meeting where he guaranteed that he would not violently react to racial taunts.
Robinson joined the Dodgers on April 15, 1947. Early in the season, some teammates started a petition to remove him. To stop the controversy, Dodgers manager, Leo Derocher, weighed in: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a [expletive] zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays.” After this, most of his teammates began to support Robinson.
Despite this growing support, opposing teams harassed and used dirty plays to harm him.
A week after Jackie’s debut, the Philadelphia Phillies were playing the Dodgers. As Robinson recounted, “… I just tried to play ball and ignore the insults but it was really getting to me.For one wild and crazed moment, I thought, ‘To Hell with Mr. Rickey’s noble experiment. To Hell with the image of the patient black freak I was supposed to create.’ I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist.”
Sensing Jackie’s anger, his teammates demanded that the Phillies stop. When this didn’t work, the Dodgers grabbed bats and converged on the Philadelphia dugout.
The most notable player supporting Robinson was shortstop and white southerner, Pee Wee Reese. In 1948, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans that were shouting slurs before a game. In another instance, the Ku Klux Klan publicized threats that they would shoot Robinson. Reese responded saying, “I think we’ll all wear 42 and have ourselves a shooting gallery.”
The solidarity helped Jackie on the field and he led the league in stolen bases, had a .297 average and earned the Rookie of the Year award.
Over time, Jackie was given more latitude. By the start of the 1949 season, Robinson was allowed to argue calls with umpires and retaliate against players. Yet, there developed a public perception that Robinson had gotten his civil rights the ‘right way.’ This perception led to some backlash against Jackie as well.
In July 1949, Robinson was called to testify in front of the House of Representatives Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) about comments made by Paul Robeson. Jackie was hesitant to appear because Robeson had been one of the most notable early agitators for desegregating baseball, but chose to do so because he feared repercussions for himself and others. While Robinson made statements like: “[T]he fact that it is a Communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges,” his testimony also strongly criticized some of Robinson’s stances. Due to his HUAC testimony and lifelong support the Republican Party, Robinson was derided as the ‘white man’s black’.
Robinson’s embrace of the Republicans needs context.
The Democrats of his era were the party of Southern racism. Jackie was Republican but was appalled by what the Republicans had become in 1964. When Barry Goldwater won the nomination, Jackie reacted by saying,
“That convention was one of the most unforgettable and frightening experiences of my life. The hatred I saw was unique to me because it was hatred directed against a white man. It embodied a revulsion for all he stood for, including his enlightened attitude towards black people. A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP” (Referring to Goldwater’s supporters attitudes toward other Republican candidates.)
Robinson was also heavily involved in the burgeoning civil rights movement. He supported the sit-ins and freedom rides, fundraised for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and was the most requested speaker from the NAACP.
Much of the nuance of Jackie’s legacy has been stripped away. His playing career marked the start of ‘integration’ in the ‘segregation, integration, celebration’ framing of baseball history. Through that traditional mantra, we’ve inserted simplified melodrama in the place of human intricacies and emotion. As we celebrate another Jackie Robinson Day, let’s retire the static, elementary school book report style of history.

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