There was no Jackie Robinson Day in 1972. On the 25th anniversary of him breaking the MLB color barrier on April 15, 1947 the league hadn’t retired his number. In fact until June 1972, the Dodgers had never retired a number. They would do so for him, Sandy Koufax, and Roy Campanella. The league didn’t even acknowledge the most significant moment in the history of the sport until Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, in Cincinnati. Robinson received a muted response from the crowd at Riverfront Stadium.
These days no one has to deal with Robinson. When you’ve been dead for almost 50 years — he passed nine days after that game — people can make of you what they want. Robinson is one of the few Black historical figures who was regularly taught to children my age in the 1990s. While you get told that he suffered great indignities as the first Black person to play in the majors, that’s not the focus of the lesson. What’s emphasized is how amazing it was that he suffered those indignities without fighting back. Branch Rickey calls him into his office and calls him every racist name in the book. Robinson then asks Rickey if he wants a player who is afraid to fight back. Rickey responds I want a player with the strength not to fight back. Robinson agrees not to retaliate against the racism both know he will face for three years.
JACKIE ROBINSON AND THE MEN WHO FOLLOWED
While that’s the person who children are taught about in picture books, if they met him on April 15, 1972, he would have been different. He wouldn’t have been an illustration or a symbol, he would’ve been a man. A man who suffered all of the indignities of being the first Black person in the majors and was not satisfied 25 years after he broke the color barrier.
Robinson died at 53 years old as his health failed him early. We didn’t get to see him become a professional writer like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his senior years or become arguably the most respected person in the history of his sport. Not only did he leave us early, he left unsatisfied and unpopular.
The Los Angeles Times’ Ron Rapoport had a piece published yesterday titled, Baseball Reveres Jackie Robinson, but Robinson didn’t Revere Baseball. Here’s Why.
Robinson had been invited to many MLB events, but he mostly chose not to attend. There was a perception that he was bitter, and yes, he was. But he wasn’t simply being a grumpy old man. He wasn’t even that old. He had a legitimate gripe. He was not happy with the way MLB treated its Black players after they could no longer play, and the way that white people in the game were fast-tracked to manager and other roles that didn’t require fielding grounders and managing 1-2 counts — at that time there had still been no Black managers.
He also spoke about why some people didn’t have favorable opinions about his attitude toward MLB after his retirement.
“I think if you look back at why people think of me the way they do,” Robinson said to Rapoport. “it’s because white America doesn’t like a Black guy who stands up for what he believes. I don’t feel baseball owes me a thing and I don’t owe baseball a thing. I am glad I haven’t had to go to baseball on my knees.”
Robinson was a fiercely proud Black man. He kept it in check for as long as he had to, but he wasn’t about to fall all over himself because MLB gave him the opportunity to play. The league was wrong for keeping Black players out for all of those years, and just because it righted that wrong does not mean he was satisfied with the league’s progress.
Sounds like another Black history figure with a high Q-score decades after his death. Yes, there is a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on the American calendar that was signed into law in 1983. But if Ronald Regan met Dr. King in 1968 while he was governor of California, he probably would not have even wanted to exchange Christmas cards.
Dr. King was also not satisfied. He wasn’t satisfied with simply blatant segregation being outlawed and basic voting rights being granted. He understood a significant problem since slavery was that Black people were segregated not just from water fountains, but from the American economy. When America was in its darkest days, the government reached out to help during the Great Depression, but no hand was extended to Black people. Dr. King talked many times, post the passing of the Voting Rights Act, about how the United States government financially looked out for its white citizens but never offered any assistance to its Black population that had been enslaved on American soil. One example: freed slaves in 1865 were given land that was abandoned by fleeing Confederates. However, that land was later given back to the Confederates during Reconstruction, leaving the recently freed slaves, who for most of their lives were legally prevented from earning wages and reading, with nothing as people who committed treasonous acts were treated like nothing ever happened.
He wanted America offering assistance to Black people to not be looked at as welfare but instead as true economic equality. That did not go over very well and he was looked at by some, definitely the FBI, as a communist. His last act on Earth was helping Black sanitation workers in Memphis on strike demanding equal wages and safe working conditions.
What both Dr. King and Robinson clearly understood was that correcting racism involved more than simply changing some laws and taking down some signs. Being alive is not cheap. Outside of the air you breathe, everything costs money. Without that, there is no way for people to assure themselves basic human decencies. Dr. King and Robinson wanted Black people to have the same access to money and that same decency as white people, and they weren’t going to be satisfied with anything less. In the mid-late 20th century that left both of them far from national holidays and a jersey number being a holy symbol for a sport.
Had they lived a full life they might never have even received these recognitions. Considering how both Dr. King and Robinson soured on Richard Nixon (who began as a proponent of civil rights before adopting the racist Southern strategy) during their lifetimes, imagine if they both made an appearance on Nightline in 1985. Their comments on America as the suburbs were blossoming and crack was ravaging the inner cities likely would have differed from Hulk Hogan’s entrance music.
So take a moment while looking at all those No. 42s all across MLB ballparks to remember that the man who is the reason for the entire day died unsatisfied, and was considered ungrateful by some in life. It’s been 50 years since his death. Imagine what his opinion would be about the decades after if he lived to be an 85-year-old man in 2004. Would there ever even be a Jackie Robinson Day?