History, made between the lines Simply by playing baseball, Robinson changed the nation

An American Hero

April 15, 1997|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN STAFF

Fifty years ago today, Jackie Robinson made history. It was, on the face of it, a subversively simple act: He showed up. He walked to first base, tapped the bag with his spikes, maybe rubbed some dirt on his hands. In other words, Robinson did what baseball players had been doing for 100 years. And that was it. Instant history. A nation forever changed. The world, and not just the baseball world, turned upside down.

Fifty years later, it's fair to ask how such a routine act - climbing the dugout steps, taking care to step over the foul line, pounding the glove, bending over in anticipation of a struck ball - could be such a big deal. But it was. It is, even today.

You know why. Because Jackie Robinson was black, and every single other person connected with the national pastime in largely segregated America was white.

That fact, that so-obvious fact, must seem hard to fathom now for the many Americans who think the problems of race begin and end in an O.J. Simpson jury room.

Fifty years ago, blacks were banned from baseball and from all major-league professional sports. You don't need to be a historian to know that; all you need is access to ESPN "SportsCenter" and its Jackie Robinson celebration updates. Some off-field history may have been forgotten, however. For example:

Fifty years ago, six black World War II veterans were lynched in a three-week period.

Fifty years ago, through much of the South, there were white-only restrooms, white-only drinking fountains, white-only lunch counters. Blacks not only couldn't live with whites, but they also couldn't even be buried with them. Interracial marriage was not just forbidden by custom; it was against the law. And whistling at the wrong woman could be a hanging offense. No wonder: In Montgomery, Ala., it was actually illegal for blacks and whites to play checkers together on public property.

Fifty years ago, when Jim Crow reigned, there was apartheid in the South, where as much as 70 percent of the black population lived in poverty. And conditions weren't so much better in the North, the new plantation.

A baseball game, somehow, would help change that.

Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey would help change that. His motives were probably manyfold. Maybe he thought segregation was wrong. Maybe he thought he could get a competitive edge. Maybe the pressure from civil rights groups in New York forced his hand or moved his conscience. In any event, he signed Jackie Robinson, and soon Robinson would play in the major leagues.

Historians will tell you this one act - one man, playing a child's game - ranked with Brown v. Board of Education, with Rosa Parks and her bus seat, with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, with Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act, and they are probably right.

Those of us who follow sports are accustomed to hype. Games are life and death. A Super Bowl, wrapped between commercials, is watched by 140 million people. Nike builds an empire based on athletic shoes. Even as schools fail, cities pay hundreds of millions of dollars for stadiums, the modern-day cathedrals. Do we know what we worship?

But this was different. This once, what happened between the white lines was as important as anything that happened outside them.

"When something happens that turns out to be so successful, it's seen as inevitable," says Jules Tygiel, a San Francisco State professor and Robinson biographer. "Nothing surrounding Jackie was inevitable. This was an experiment. And experiments can fail."

Some game.

Because it is 50 years and because it is risk-free, Major League Baseball is finally honoring Jackie Robinson. There are Robinson events wherever you look, generally involving the latest in designer patch-wear.

Not that everyone is entirely thrilled.

Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame player and first black manager, who now sits home in Los Angeles without a job because 50 years after Jackie Robinson there is still only one black general manager, is one who thinks the celebration comes a little late.

"They shouldn't have waited 50 years," Robinson says, "to recognize what he accomplished. If they'd come along in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years, then the 50th year would have been a nice, big celebration. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they're doing it now. But it never should have taken this long, not for what Jackie did."

Here's the theme of the celebration: Jackie Robinson did a great thing a long time ago when things were terrible. Here's the subtext: Things must be pretty good now.

It's much the same as when schoolchildren celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. His life has become what educators call a value tale, meaning he gets the full great-man treatment, the full canonization. They focus on the "I Have a Dream" speech of reconciliation and ignore his fight on behalf of the poor and the otherwise disenfranchised. They don't ask what King would think of race relations today. That's too complex, and we like our great-man tales simple.

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