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 on Jackie.

His legacy is a foundation stone of the civil rights movement.

His memory deserves the greatest honor.

One small honor would be to rename the Brooklyn Bridge after him.


See The City Review article on Pee Wee Reese


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