Jackie Robinson's 50th Anniversary

Midsummer 1949, age 30, playing his third year of baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify on the question of whether black Americans would fight a war against Russia. The committee chairman hoped that Robinson would "give the lie" to Paul Robeson, actor, singer, beloved of the international left, who had said that black Americans would not fight Russians. Robinson denied that he, Robeson or anyone could speak for 15 million people. He told the committee, he said afterward, "I didn't pretend to be an expert on Communism or any other kind of political `ism,' but I was an expert on being a colored American, having had thirty years of experience at it, and I knew how difficult it was to be in the minority." Twenty-three years later, in 1972, in an autobiography completed almost in the hour of his death, weary and wise and multiply ill and wounded, Robinson asserted that he "never regretted" his appearance before the committee, though he resented its being featured in the press as one in which "I had put down Robeson hard. That wasn't true.... I have grown wiser and closer to painful truths about America's destructiveness. And I do have an increased respect for Paul Robeson, who, over the span of that twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people." To the end of his life, people said to Robinson, "What's your beef, Jackie? You've got it made." In the accepted sense, he had. But, like Robeson, he rejected the primacy of wealth and comfort, allying himself with persons and causes beyond self. In the autobiography he wrote with the help of Alfred Duckett -- I Never Had It Made -- Robinson posted a foreword whose abrupt end-statement may startle those of us who have thought of Robinson as essentially conventional. He mingles memories of triumphs with revelations of advancing skepticism, loss of patriotic faith. "There I was [September 30, 1947], the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again.... Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty five years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made." Rags to riches, the life of Jackie Robinson has often been seen as a Horatio Alger story. The boy (a word he hated) did it all himself, with a bit of timely luck in the person of Dodgers president Branch Rickey. For several years Rickey had conducted an extensive search to find the black baseball player most likely to succeed in the all-white American major leagues. In 1945 the player he settled on was Robinson. The first meeting of the two men has become legendary. Robinson accepted Rickey's stipulation that on the field he would never fight back against the brutes of the diamond certain to torment him in every way. "Suppose I was at shortstop. Another player comes down from first, stealing, flying in with spikes high, and cuts me on the leg. As I feel the blood running down my leg, the white player laughs in my face. `How do you like that, nigger boy?' he sneers. Could I turn the other cheek?" "Robinson," said Rickey, "I'm looking for a [black] ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back." For three seasons, first in a minor league and then for two years in Brooklyn, Robinson maintained an outward passivity unnatural to a player in a big-money game renowned for its system of challenge with a lethal ball and a hardwood bat. In his fourth year he was liberated by Rickey from passivity: "I could fight back when I wanted.... the principle had been established; the major victory won. There were enough blacks on other teams to ensure that American baseball could never again turn its back on minority competitors." Just as Robinson was perfectly self-contained in the beginning, he was also, above all, a player of rare excellence. He could, as they say, do everything--he could hit for average and he could hit for distance, he could bunt, he could run, he could field, he could throw. He was a leader of men, a golden boy but black, Brooklyn's great white (black) hope who led the Dodgers to six pennants between 1947 and 1956. From 1899 to 1946 Brooklyn had won only five. But the idea that Robinson exemplified the Horatio Alger tradition has raised questions in the mind of my colleague Keith Miller, at Arizona State University, who in a provocative monograph sees him as more accurately belonging not to the Alger tradition of the self-made, clean-living American man rising by virtue to eminence but to the mood, the methods and the spirited tradition of black baseball before 1945, when the national pastime, as it was called, was pure white. When Robinson came to Brooklyn, Professor Miller writes, he "introduced new principles of jazz-like baseball that embodied an African-American critique of white baseball and white culture. He triumphed because he skillfully and systematically enacted such a critique on the baseball diamond and skillfully and systematically disclaimed the critique, erasing it from his autobiographical rhetoric." White America, Miller tells us, "accepted the...argument that Robinson was a singularly gifted player, an aberration.... But...Robinson was no aberration. His syncopated dance--off third base...off first base...forms part of a larger system of black culture that includes jazz.... Black ball and jazz enjoyed a philosophical closeness as well. Just as the Book that ruled white baseball was unknown in the Negro Leagues, written scores that usually dictate Western music are absent in the spontaneous combustion of jazz. Satchel Paige refused to throw prescribed pitches just as jazz musicians refused to play prescribed notes." Said a veteran of the Negro Leagues, "We used to do everything. I used a whole lot of trickeration." "Trickeration," according to Miller, "has extensive roots in African-American culture. As the sole black in the white major leagues, Robinson lured opponents into making basic mistakes before teeming, integrated crowds, many of whom had paid to see him. He repeatedly records the wildly enthusiastic reception that he received from enormous numbers of African-Americans in city after city. They gleefully cheered whenever he, a single African-American, could embarrass an entire team -- indeed, an entire league--of whites, each of whom was held to be superior to all blacks. Robinson's self-described choreography and other trickeration asserted that, instead of being dignified, orderly, and supreme--as it claimed to be -- white culture was actually starchy, predictable, and inferior. His improvisation forms the most visible portion of the entire 1940s and 1950s black deconstruction of white cultural rigidity." Robinson's success as a player encouraged the Dodgers to employ other black players. In turn, the success of the Dodgers encouraged competing organizations to re-evaluate their color lines. Step by step, new models emerged, resistance weakened. The story is told of a baseball executive who believed that the hiring of Robinson would sink the Dodgers. Soon afterward, he agreed that Robinson would work out fine, but three black Dodgers would sink the franchise, five would destroy the National League and eight would demolish baseball. By the end of 1947 the Dodgers had signed -- "owned" -- sixteen black players to its major-league and farm teams. In the rival American League the Cleveland Indians, under the direction of Bill Veeck, like Rickey a maverick executive, signed an outfielder named Larry Doby, who thus became the American League's first black player. Robert Peterson, in Only the Ball Was White, reports that thirty-six black players had been signed by big-league organizations in 1949; in 1950 "five major-league teams had been integrated"; by 1953, seven; and in 1959, when at last a black player joined the Boston Red Sox, every big-league team had been integrated. Liberated from passivity, Robinson assumed an aggressive leadership role. He fought back, not only against opposition base-runners but against old patterns of racial segregation in hotels, restaurants and stadium facilities. At the deepest level of significance baseball's modern moment began with his assertion of himself not only as a participating player but as an aggressive force on-field and off. After 1956, an old hand at 37, he drifted from the game. He might have accepted a job as field manager or front-office executive, but he was never asked. For a World Series game on October 15, 1972, in Cincinnati, Robinson threw out the ceremonial ball. At 53 he was suffering from heart disease and high blood pressure. Diabetes had cost him the sight of one eye, and he feared the loss of the other. On that occasion, nine days before his death, he repeated his frequent lamentation that no black man had yet become a big-league manager. His persistence on this issue may have been a kind of coyness, innocence. His rejection by baseball's owners can only have come from their perception that while the influence of black players had been basic to the tremendous resurgent popularity of baseball, it had also been a cause of the owners' potential ruination. As black players had brought to mainstream baseball the tradition of the black leagues, their flair for trickeration, their jazzlike innovation, their defiance of the Book, the nonchalance of the one- handed catch, the mighty home runs of Henry Aaron, the incomparable skill of Willie Mays, they made the game exciting in ways it might not otherwise have been. They had also brought a critique of white baseball and white culture, smoldering ideas of social and economic change. They had lived long in skepticism. They had descended from families of slaves. In 1970 the black player Curt Flood, after a distinguished career of fourteen years, brought the landmark suit that led to the end of baseball's hallowed "reserve clause," whereby a player was "owned" body and contract by the team with which he signed. From this contract he could never be released except by trade or sale to another company. The player's only option was to retire from the game. Anyone listening critically heard in these arrangements echoes of the language of slavery. After Flood's suit the baseball player won the right to become a "free agent," to bargain for himself, in effect to sell himself to an "owner" of his choice. Salaries rose stupendously. To the eye of the public the baseball field now looked like a playground of millionaires. But the players had a powerful sense, even if the public did not, of their own true condition. They lived by the muscle of youth. Their careers were cruelly brief and might end in an instant -- a wrenched joint, a broken bone, and they were done for. Black players held no hope for a long-term future within the only industry for which their lives had prepared them, while behind them, in the minor leagues, schools and colleges, thousands of boys practiced hard every day to wrest from them their million-dollar jobs. The social role of the player widened by a contagion of principle. Black players had learned to see what Robinson saw, to know what he knew, and white players had developed respect for and confidence in the black players who were their teammates, clubhouse mates, room- mates and friends. The baseball player became radicalized. Strike followed strike. Until the recent one, the longest strike, in 1981, lasted fifty days and forced the cancellation of 714 games. In April 1995, when baseball reopened for business after a strike of eight months, the 600 players on major-league rosters were about 40 percent black. Their strike had held firm against a background of the players' amazing, steadfast solidarity. They are advantageously poised even now for the resumption of negotiations in the spirit and mood of Robinson, who carried into the game not only varieties of trickeration but a sure sense of identity. Young athletes see themselves in a struggle of worker and owner. This is the consciousness to which Robinson by his presence and his legacy raised his fellows, white and black.

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