WHY IT’S IMPORTANT WE HONOR JACKIE ROBINSON
During the final week of Spring Training, I had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of “42,” the new Legendary Pictures/Warner Brothers movie about Jackie Robinson. Both Chadwick Boseman (Jackie) and Harrison Ford (Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey) were outstanding in lead roles, and the film certainly is a great reminder on why we honor the man who broke baseball’s color barrier. This Monday night at the Coliseum, every A’s and Astros player, coach and manager will be wearing the No. 42, as we pay tribute to Robinson on the date (April 15) he first played in a Major League game back in 1947.
I can remember many years ago, while in a previous job, I accompanied former outfielder Ellis Burks to a local middle school assembly. Burks, who was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where his family experienced the racial tensions of the 60’s, was part of a pilot program honoring Jackie Robinson which eventually was adopted by all of Major League Baseball. Our message to these 12- and 13-year-olds was this: Jackie Robinson is the greatest role model and hero in American sports history. His actions both on and off the field not only changed the face of sports in this country, but it also changed the way America would view race relations and social justice. Many people forget that Jackie was truly a lone pioneer during that time in American history. This was eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Prior to Jackie joining the Dodgers, young African American males never thought it was even in the realm of possibility that one day they could play in the Major Leagues. They wouldn’t even allow themselves to dream it was possible. My good friend and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda once told me the same thing. “Jackie wasn’t just a hero in the black community. He was our hero too! Until he broke the barrier, Latins like me, Roberto (Clemente) and the Alou brothers could only hope to play against Negro League players when they played winter ball on the islands.” As a child of the 60’s, I fell in love with the game of baseball watching Orlando, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard and so many other exciting stars who were people of color. I cannot imagine what that decade would have been like without those great players. I think also, it sheds some light on what Major League Baseball missed when a previous generation of minorities—the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard—were not allowed to play. That all changed after a young man named Jackie Robinson, a highly-educated and multi-sport star at UCLA, agreed to accept the unenviable challenge presented by Mr. Rickey.
Later in his life—unfortunately not depicted in the movie—Jackie continued to be an advocate for racial equality and a true pioneer. Retiring from baseball after the 1956 season, he accepted an executive position with Chock full o’Nuts, becoming the first black vice president of a major American corporation. Later he would help found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem, as well as establish the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which built housing for low-income families. Yet, Jackie was more than a role model in business. He also remained a social activist, serving on the board of the NAACP and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Ironically, his final public appearance involved the Oakland A’s. It was before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Major League debut. The white-haired Robinson, showing the ravages of several years living with diabetes, accepted a plaque and spoke before the first pitch. “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.” Nine days later on Oct. 24, 1972, Jackie passed away at the young age of 53. Two years later, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson the first African American manager in Major League history. Many other black managers have followed, including Dusty Baker, Cito Gaston, Willie Randolph, Ron Washington, and just this year, Bo Porter with the Astros. But Robinson’s influence went beyond baseball. Magic Johnson became a business leader in Los Angeles after his basketball career and is an investor in the Dodgers. Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State. Oprah Winfrey became a media mogul and social conscience in this country. Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z is now part-owner of the NBA’s Nets, ironically based in the same New York borough (Brooklyn) where Jackie Robinson made history. And, of course, the first African American president, Barack Obama, is in his second term as our nation’s leader.
I suspect Jackie Robinson is looking down on us and quite pleased with the progress we have made. However, Jackie was not one to rest on his laurels. I have no doubt he would still be pushing for more progress if he was here today.
Of course, if you’re an A’s fan, you also have another reason to love and cherish Jackie Robinson. Following the 1956 season, the Dodgers traded him to the arch-rival Giants. Robinson, facing an unimaginative horror, chose to retire instead of ever wearing the orange & black uniform. Our kind of guy.