by Carter B. Horsley
What a dancer!
What a man!
What a professional!
What a hero!
Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball
50 years ago this spring is being justly honored: President Clinton
attended a game at Shea Stadium April 15; The New York Post devoted
a special 40-age section honoring the great Brooklyn Dodger second-baseman
the same day; and all the players in the major leagues are wearing
a commemorative shoulder patch.
Jackie's career in the big leagues was relatively
short - ten seasons - as he started at 28 and retired in
1959, but he won Rookie-of-the-Year in 1947 and two years later
the Most Valuable Player Award in the National League.
As Carl Erskine, his pitching teammate, said
on a long segment on the Lehrer News Hour on PBS April 15, Jackie
was the "centerpiece" of the great Dodger team of the
late 40's and 50's, arguably the finest team in baseball history,
and certainly the best since the Yankee team of 1927.
I grew up in Manhattan, but was a Brooklyn
Dodger fan. I went to my first game in 1949 and de Bums were the
most colorful team in baseball and the complete opposite of the
corporate pinstripes of the lily-white New York Yankees and the
arch-rivals of the more human New York Giants.
My idol became Duke Snider and I incessantly
debated his merits over Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, both of
whom went on to greater careers but in the early 50's it was a
hotly contested toss-up as to who was the greatest centerfielder.
I don't know why I focused on Duke. Maybe it
was his looks. My second favorite on the team was Preacher Roe,
the pitcher. I think I liked his name. But I loved them all, PeeWee,
and Campy and Hodges and Cox and Furillo and Robinson, the core
of the team.
Duke, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella were the
long-ball hitters, of course, but Robinson was the spark. Just
let him get on!
As a young fan, I was colorblind at first.
Jackie had been on the team for two years already and Larry Doby
integrated the American League a bit later.
Jackie simply was sensational, a dazzling,
daring baserunner, a fine fielder, a superb hitter with a memorable
smooth, quick swing. He was beautiful. I didn't know how great
an athlete he had already been, a four-sport phenomenon at the
UCLA. He was mesmerizing and you sensed his aura of competitiveness,
his inner energy.
He was soon joined by other blacks on the Dodgers,
Roy Campanella, the stocky catcher, big Don Newcombe, the pitcher,
and Joe Black, another pitcher. I was always rooted for Duke to
get more homeruns so I was not a great fan of Campanella, who
was great. Newcombe was scary, a very big man who was one of the
greatest hitting pitchers ever. In contrast, Jackie was nimble,
graceful and stunning.
The story has been told many times of how Branch
Rickey, the head of the Dodgers, warned Jackie how horrible the
insults would be if he decided to join the team and integrated
the American past-time. Rickey warned him that he must turn the
other cheek, and Jackie did. But Jackie was human and the terrible
scars of prejudice seared within him and you knew that he seethed
with contempt, anger and hatred of the bigotry then in the game
and throughout the country.
Jackie had starred in the Negro Leagues and
sportswriter Leonard Koppett observed, on the same Lehrer show,
that he was annoyed at Jackie's debut in the major leagues because
he realized that such great talent had been heretofore invisible
in the American media.
Jackie's performance on the field earned him
a quick ascendancy to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Jackie's performance off the field should have
earned him even greater glory for he was an outspoken protagonist
for human decency. His curbed rage and deliberate dedication to
carrying on his shoulders the burdens of the blacks in America
was as eloquent in his demeanor as Martin Luther King's indelible
oratory a few years later and as far removed from the overpaid
lesser talents of more recent years who seem to have never understood
or learned that role-models have responsibilities beyond making
money, or indulgent illegal habits.
Some have said that it was inevitable that
the color barrier in baseball, then the country's second most
important culture after the movies, and only really major sport,
would be broken. Yes, but perhaps without such effect, for Jackie
was a hero, not just for blacks, but for anyone who saw him jumping
and lurching, arms almost swinging, eyes darting, toes clenching,
off third base. When he stole home, which he did more than anymore
else in baseball, he stole the hearts of all baseball lovers.
Stealing home is the most spectacular accomplishment in baseball.
Jackie didn't steal as many bases as some others, he didn't hit
better than Ted Williams, or Stan Musial, his great contemporaries.
He may not have been as aggressive as Ty Cobb, but then Jackie
was a decent man.
As a child I was not really alert to how racist
America was, and, sadly, still is. I still love Duke and am impressed
how nicely Erskine and PeeWee have grown with the years. I grew
to like Campy and was deeply saddened by his unfortunate, crippling
accident. Gil Hodges and all the rest were awfully decent and
because they suffered so much from the Yankee juggernaut they
were very human.
We've all waited for next year and now, this
year, the time has come that Jackie is beloved, hopefully by all.
He was not my idol. He was ideal. He was the
conscience. He was the reminder that dignity must always be personal.
The back page of the April 15, 1997 edition
of The New York Post, for which I once worked and which deserves
accolades for its Jackie Robinson edition, carried a great picture
of Jackie stealing home and the following quote of his:
"A life is not important, except in
the impact it has on other lives."
Jackie is now my hero.
It is a bit ironic that the Jackie Robinson
tributes had to compete with the sensational achievements of Tiger
Woods at the 1997 Masters golf tournament. Tiger Woods handled
himself admirably and the picture of him hugging his father and
trying to holding back his tears after becoming the first black
man and the youngest man ever to win the prestigious championship,
to say nothing of winning by the greatest margin ever, was touching
and memorable and he shows every sign of being a fine role-model
for youths of any color. His achievement, however awesome,
nonetheless pales besides the pressures and obstacles that confronted
Jackie Robinson. Tiger's romp was delightfully refreshing
and surely Jackie would have been thrilled at it, even if most
likely he would have been dismayed that 50 years had not produced
greater changes and earlier.
I used to memorize all of Duke's stats and
his pictures and hoped, as I tucked my baseball glove beneath
my pillow, that I might become as good as he. I still do, of course,
but I'm now really out of shape.
Now, every picture I see of Jackie, I look to see the concentration,
the drive, the danger, the indomitable spirit not only to survive,
but to succeed, and succeed with pride, with dignity, with humanity.
This week I will buy "Jackie Robinson:
An Intimate Portrait," by his elegant widow, Rachel Robinson,
with a foreword by Roger Wilkins and 300 photographs, published
by Abrams, $29.95, and hope that everyone will.
There have been other truly great black champions.
Willie "Say Hey" Mays, Jessie Owens, Muhammed Ali, Michael
Jordan come to mind instantly, but none carried the baggage dumped
His legacy is a foundation stone of the civil
His memory deserves the greatest honor.
One small honor would be to rename the Brooklyn
Bridge after him.