On the anniversary of the death of Jackie Robinson

Every spring Major League Baseball remembers Jackie Robinson, as it should. Here’s hoping tonight, on the occasion of the first game of the 2012 World Series, MLB will do so again.

Because Game 1 coincides not only with the anniversaries of past World Series, but with Robinson’s death 40 years ago today.

Robinson threw out the first ball at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series (A’s over Reds in 7) on a cold October day. Less than two weeks later, the legs and body that stole home over Yogi Berra’s protests slowed by diabetes, his hair white, his vision dimmed, Robinson died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972. He was 53.

“Thank you very much commissioner,” Robinson said in his high-pitched voice at his last public appearance. “I am extremely pleased and proud to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

That was the Robinson I’ve read about it — needling, principled, prophetic. It’s a shame Robinson didn’t live long enough to see Frank Robinson become the first African-American manager or to see Hank Aaron become the game’s all-time home run hitter. Or perhaps not (he also didn’t live long enough to see the first African-American manager fired, or another African-American all-time home run leader tainted by scandal).

There won’t be many African-Americans playing in this World Series — four by quick count, and all for the Tigers. The Giants will have none, but it doesn’t mean we’ve returned to the settings Robinson forever changed, either. In fact, baseball today is as diverse as it’s ever been — 40% of the players in this World Series are of Hispanic descent, and though there are none from Asia or Australia, there would have been had the Yankees or A’s won.

That African-Americans are not nearly as well-represented in MLB as they were when Robinson died should not be discouraging. Many African-American athletes are choosing to play football or basketball, and that, too, is part of Robinson’s legacy — that it’s a choice.

Because Robinson — who excelled in five sports, of which baseball probably wasn’t his best: football, track and field, basketball and tennis were the others — didn’t have as many. His older brother Mack won a silver medal in the long jump at the 1936 Olympics at Berlin, but came home “and could only find work as a garbageman,” said Scott Simon, author of Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Baseball. “That’s something Jackie Robinson (could) never forget.”

When Robinson signed to play professional baseball, World War II just over, consider:

  • it was still nine years before Brown vs. Board of Education desegregated schools.
  • not quite three years before President Harry S Truman desegregated the U.S. military.
  • a year after Robinson, a lieutenant in the army, was court-martialed for refusing, like Rosa Parks 11 years later, to move to the back of a segregated bus. Robinson was cleared and honorably discharged.
  • Martin Luther King Jr. was a teenager, not a preacher, and Malcolm X was the criminal Malcolm Little, soon to go to jail; two decades later, Malcolm chided Robinson for what he perceived as Robinson’s acquiescence on civil rights.

    Even so many years later — especially so many years later — few of us can know or feel what Robinson endured. We can read about it, though. There’s more good literature on Robinson — David Falkner’s Great Time Coming, Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment, Chris Lamb’s Blackout, Arnold Rampersad’s biography, Jonathan Eig’s story of his first season and my Triple Crown winner, Roger Kahn’s Boys of Summer — than any other baseball player and perhaps any other American athlete.

    Hollywood spends millions to create heroes and fictional stories; next year it will release a new film on Robinson, and it doesn’t have to make up a thing.

    Me? I’m too old to have heroes (because Pete Rose worked out so well), and too cynical to ascribe value to athletes beyond what they do on the field of play. Robinson is the exception, perhaps because he was retired before I was a fan, perhaps because of his humanity or his courage. Surely the film will depict that Robinson, but hopefully also the one others say he could be — moody, stubborn, competitive.

    “This guy didn’t just come to play,” said Leo Durocher, who managed Robinson and opposed him, and didn’t always get along with him, in Boys of Summer. “He comes to beat ya. He come to stuff the g–damn bat right up your ass.”

    And to think Matt Holliday’s slide into the Giants’ Marco Scutaro was controversial. History says that was Robinson’s 9-to-5.

    “This was the man Branch Rickey hired, proud, as his mother had wanted him to be,” wrote Kahn in Boys of Summer, “fierce in his own nature, scarred because white America wounds its fierce proud blacks.”

    Robinson retired after the 1956 season, rather than play for the arch-rival New York Giants the Dodgers traded him to (Dick Littlefield and cash). Look Magazine paid for his retirement story, just as ESPN paid LeBron James all those years later for the announcement of his new team. A Dodger executive said Robinson would unretire once he had the money, according to Boys of Summer, and that Robinson “likes money.” As if Robinson should apologize for it. Hearing that, Robinson put his cleats down. He never played again.

    Robinson said “a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” and 25 years after he broke the color barrier, he was honored for it at that last public appearance. Twenty-five years after that, after his death, he was honored again, his number retired for good. It says something when one’s impact grows after death.

    Forty years to the week after Robinson died, a Canadian politician named Lincoln Alexander died. Aexander was the first black member of Canada’s parliament. At least one remembrance of Alexander called him “Parliament’s Jackie Robinson,” a tribute to both men.

    The pick: I like the Tigers. But I don’t like the Tigers. They won only 88 games — six less than their opponents — and might not have made the playoffs if they played in any division other than the AL Central. Their defense is wobbly (the Giants’ sure isn’t) their closer should be closed down and they were better last year. And yet, whether it’s the story line for the city or some other hunch, I like the Tigers. They have Justin Verlander pitching in turn and their bullpen is rested, and they’ve won seven of nine playoff games with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder hitting a combined .243. They can improvise in the bullpen — Octavio Dotel has been good and their lefties got the Yankees’ lefties out and Al Alburquerque could close, if he can stay healthy for seven games. And how long can Marco Scutaro, who’s not even the best infielder the Red Sox gave away last offseason, keep it up? The Giants are 6-0 in elimination games, but the Tigers don’t need to worry about that till get there Tigers in 6.

    sources: biography.com, Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn, Jackie Robinson.com

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