Fifty years ago

April 15, 1997|By Tom Longstreth

Branch Rickey asked,

Can you take it?

I've got to,

Whispered Jackie Robinson.

Did he have the ability? How would he behave?

These questions magnified the meaning of

His every move,

On the field and off it, that first year.

For he was being asked nothing less than this:

To represent his whole race in a public testing of

Ability, will and character, to be the very living symbol of

What might be

A coming social revolution.

Black people knew that if Number 42 made it

Others would follow him,

And not into baseball alone . . .

And knew too that if he maintained

His quiet dignity and lonely courage

In the face of the racial taunts, beanballs and death threats

That a loud and ugly minority of bigots hurled his way

As he traveled from city to city,

Sympathy and support would swing his way,

And theirs.

Some people scoff and say change is inevitable,

That things happen just because the time is ripe.

But if that's so why does it never happen until

Someone brave enough to meet the ready moment

Looks around, sees no one else,

Feels the Hand on him, or her,

Then takes that first huge awful step,

All alone?

And he was good:

'47 Rookie of the Year, '49 Batting Champ and MVP,

Sparkplug, in his ten years, of six Dodger pennant-winners,

And in the Hall of Fame.

But then diabetes and heart disease

Cut him down at fifty-three as no head-hunting pitcher

Or spikes-high baserunner ever did.

And we wonder too what toll was taken

By the heavy weight he carried years before,

When a nation watched transfixed and saw

One man, batting somehow for us all,

Stand alone and win.

Red Barber, born in turn-of-the-century Mississippi, was the Dodgers' radio man. At first he said he wouldn't call the games. But he changed his mind. And when it was all over he said, ''I know that if I have achieved any understanding and tolerance in my life, . . . if I have been able to follow a little better the great second commandment, which is to love thy neighbor, . . . I thank Jackie Robinson. He did far more for me than I did for him.''

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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