No. 42's influence on display today, and not just on jerseys

Commentary

April 15, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's difficult to ignore the strange confluence of events that have served as prologue to today's 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Talkjock Don Imus was fired Thursday after making a demeaning and racially insensitive comment about the Rutgers University women's basketball team, which - coincidentally enough - was the same kind of thing Robinson had to endure from baseball fans and fellow major league players while he was making the history we celebrate today.

Three white former members of the Duke University men's lacrosse team were cleared of kidnapping and sexual assault charges Wednesday after an overzealous prosecutor rushed to judgment about their role in the alleged rape of a black woman. Robinson grew up in an America where the same kind of prosecutorial abuse routinely was applied to black people, except that it didn't make national headlines and the outcome seldom left the defendants holding the high ground.

All-time major league home run king Hank Aaron - whose assault on Babe Ruth's home run mark made him a seminal sports figure in the fight for black equality - told an Atlanta newspaper that he would not be present if and when Barry Bonds breaks his record.

Indeed, six decades after Robinson made his major league debut, race might be an even hotter topic than it was the year he braved death threats and countless racist insults to break baseball's long-standing color barrier. And it's tempting to wonder whether we've really come very far in the quest to evolve into a colorblind society.

Certainly, we have not come far enough, but Robinson represented a quantum leap forward for American society, and the racial progress that is his legacy is reflected in each of the aforementioned situations.

Imus' mean-spirited characterization of those female athletes caused a nationwide furor as the media, corporate America and society in general quickly rallied around the Rutgers team. Robinson, listening to similar taunts from the stands, had to settle for a symbolic arm-hug from white teammate Pee Wee Reese.

The Duke situation spawned an ill-informed outpouring of initial support for the accuser and an all-out attempt by the prosecutor to build a case against the three white lacrosse players. The case fell apart, but the knee-jerk national reaction was to accept the account of the supposed victim. It would have been the other way around in that part of the country 60 years ago.

Obviously, it's easier to forge a link between Robinson and Aaron, because they were contemporaries, but you can make the case that the obstacles Robinson overcame and the sacrifices he made to overcome them are reflected equally in the positions of both Aaron and Bonds as the day approaches when they trade places on the all-time home run list.

Robinson had to agree to accept all of the indignities directed at him during those first couple of years in the major leagues as a condition of joining the Dodgers. Legendary baseball executive Branch Rickey knew there would be racist attempts to provoke Robinson into doing something that would undermine the experiment, so he exacted a promise that Robinson would turn the other cheek no matter what was said in the clubhouse or from the stands.

Aaron faced the same kind of racial abuse with similar resolve and grace as he bore down on Ruth 27 years later.

Can you imagine Bad News Barry doing something like that?

Of course not, but that's because Robinson and Aaron did it for him. Who knows how Robinson would have felt about Bonds and everything that surrounds the current assault on Aaron's record, but I'm guessing he knew at the time that he was fighting for the moment when a black man could conquer major league baseball entirely on his own terms.

Bonds had it right when he responded to the news that Aaron is not planning to be present for the record-breaker. Aaron, he said, is his own man and has a right to do whatever he wants.

It might be difficult to find anything to like about Bonds, who can be arrogant and obnoxious, and remains a central figure in baseball's ongoing steroid scandal, but he also has marched to the beat of his own drum on his way to a record that now seems almost inevitable.

Today, he'll be one of the players wearing No. 42 to honor Robinson, who made it all possible.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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