Tributes sure beat the earlier ignorance

April 15, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

The tributes to Jackie Robinson all over major league baseball today are too much, some say. The skeptics don't mean that in a negative way. It's touching for six entire major league teams to wear his No. 42 today, and for members of all the other teams, like the Orioles' Corey Patterson, to be wearing it.

But isn't this overkill? Doesn't this water down the tribute? Doesn't it make it a trendy act instead of an act of respect? "Jackie Robinson would be rolling over in his grave," Twins outfielder Torii Hunter said on ESPN late last week, expressing his conviction that with this tribute, less is more.

I beg to differ.

It's either an overwhelming swarm of players honoring him and running the risk of sensory Jackie overload ... or a repeat of the Dark Ages for the heirs of Robinson. Or the Age of Unenlightenment.

Here, in 1991, was Vince Coleman, on a night to honor the Negro leagues in New York, of all places: "I don't know nothing about no Jackie Robinson."

Two years earlier, a little over 40 years after Robinson broke baseball's color line, the now-defunct Sport magazine asked a number of black major leaguers what Robinson meant to them. Dave Henderson ("The success of Jackie Robinson is the reason why I wear his number") and Mel Hall ("Robinson is the reason why I'm here today. Robinson gave us equal opportunity in sports") got it. However ...

"Jackie Robinson? What year did he die? I wasn't old enough to remember him." (Phil Bradley)

"Sorry, I can't help you." (Ricky Jordan)

"I can't really say nothing about the guy because I never followed baseball. I just played the game." (Jerome Walton)

"I didn't follow Jackie Robinson's career." (Dwight Gooden)

And: "I don't know anything about Jackie Robinson." (Ken Griffey Jr.)

Yes, that Ken Griffey Jr. The same one who started the movement that culminates in today's across-the-board standing ovation for Jackie Robinson from baseball to America and the world. Griffey was the first to go to Bud Selig and ask to wear No. 42 today. News got out, and the idea caught fire.

Individual players wanted to do it, too. Then every team wanted to have at least one. Then the Dodgers, Robinson's team, made the leap to include the entire roster. Then five more teams wanted to go full-Jackie as well.

So, with age does come wisdom, after all. Here's to you, Ken Griffey Jr. Thanks to you, there are fewer players, and probably fewer people, who will ever echo your dumb words from two decades ago.

Looking back, it's disturbing how ill-informed that generation of black players was. Then again, baseball wasn't doing a lot to make education about Robinson a priority. Remember, the 40th anniversary, in 1987, also was the occasion Dodgers executive Al Campanis chose to go on national TV and say that African-Americans don't have "the necessities" to manage. (Or the "buoyancy" to swim.)

Let's repeat: a Dodgers executive. What chance did the players have? Well, a good chance if they'd tried hard enough. But they didn't. This year, they have.

And so has baseball. It was 10 years ago, and 10 years after the Campanis embarrassment, that Selig retired Robinson's number on every franchise. You still can't beat that for a unique way to honor a legend -Selig had a blind spot on steroids, killed off a World Series and couldn't figure a way to resolve an All-Star Game in his home ballpark, but he nailed this one.

If not for that gesture, the ones today might never have happened. So, Bud, here's to you, too.

Today, all of baseball takes ownership of Robinson's legacy. Warts and all, one might add. For one, it's still a little creepy to see the sport that fought so hard against his entry, and stranded him and Branch Rickey on their own in their quest, pat itself on the back this way. But later generations have acknowledged those sins and have worked feverishly to atone for them. You can tell the effort is genuine, on the part of Selig and the teams that backed him wholeheartedly.

Take note, for instance, of two of the teams that chose to put No. 42 on every back. The Cardinals, the very team that, legend has it, had planned to go on strike in 1947 rather than play against a black man, before the then-commissioner squashed it.

And the Phillies, whose then-manager, Ben Chapman, is generally regarded as the very embodiment of the worst, most racist elements Robinson faced. Robinson said in his 1972 autobiography that the vile behavior displayed by Chapman and the Phillies that first year nearly made him quit on the spot: "For one wild and rage-crazed minute I thought, To hell with Mr. Rickey's `noble experiment,' " he wrote.

Robinson changed his mind. Then he changed everybody else's minds.

Now, the game faces the hilarious situation of too many people giving him what they consider the ultimate praise. Too many putting his number on and figuring on grasping more about what he bore on his back, and educating every viewer of it, as well.

No, that won't make Robinson roll over in his grave.

Besides, if Vince Coleman didn't, nothing will.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele -- Points after

For all the patriotic defenders of free speech who have lined up in support of Don Imus: Tim Hardaway and Micheal Ray Richardson would like your phone numbers.

As the report on a possible downtown arena draws closer to going public, it's good to see Ed Hale still in the mix, because he seems to want it more than anybody else, regardless of his reasons. Boston Street, Howard Street, it doesn't matter; they're both a shorter drive than F Street in D.C.

No truth, by the way, to the rumors that the Wizards are reaching back into their Baltimore past for some playoff help, asking Earl Monroe whether his legs are in shape.

Good effort, Kevin Millar, but in the Ray Lewis dance imitation contest, you're still running second to Terrell Owens.

Are you taking requests? Next time, show us your Eddie Murray.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.