Like every red-blooded American boy growing up on a farm (Roberta, Crawford County, Ga.) in the 1950s, I dreamed of playing professional baseball until I could no longer hit a 3-2 slider with the winning run 90 feet away from home plate.
I’m not certain how I came to become so fascinated with the American pastime. It may have had something to do with the pick-up games out in the yard on Sunday afternoons with a red rubber ball, while my grandmother churned away to make a perfect batch of peach ice cream for the winners and losers alike.
“Hit it like Jackie Robinson!” my Uncle Paul would yell.
“You’re not holding your bat right, Jackie Robinson holds his bat like this,” my Uncle John would say, grabbing the big wooden bat with Jackie Robinson’s signature out of my hands as he would demonstrate the Robinson stance.
There was much talk about Robinson during the summer months of the 1950s. I did not understand what it meant when the adults said Robinson had broken the color barrier because as long as I had been watching baseball on television or listening to the games on the radio there were Negro players on the field playing along side the white players.
So as we approached the 65-year mark of Robinson’s pioneering move to integrate modern day major league baseball, I was searching for a story idea. I could not let this occasion pass without writing a word about its meaning. I could not come up with anything, then late on April 15, my mom called and like the school teacher she was for 35 years, she posed a question designed as a teachable moment.
“Hello,” I said.
“Son, do you know what happened on this day 65 years ago?”
“Yes,” I said. “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.”
“That’s right,” she said. “I was 18 years old.”
I had my story angle, now mom became the object of the journalist’s inquiry.
“What was it like?”
“We were all excited. We knew he had played in Canada the year before, but we did not know if it would ever happen in this country.”
“Was the game on the radio?”
“No it was not on the radio and we did not have a television. Very few people back then had televisions.”
“How did you find out it happened?”
“It was on the radio news. Momma and Daddy listened to the news on radio everyday.”
“How was this news received?”
“We were all excited, but the white people didn’t talk about it. They pretended it didn’t happen. Just like whenknocked out that German. You couldn’t talk about it in town, because the white folks would get mad at you.”
“Did you think it would change anything?”
“We felt like if we got one in there, then more would get to play.”
Inspired by Robinson’s courage, my mom later that year rode her bicycle into town and asked for a voter’s registration application.
I’ve written elsewhere of that encounter, how she read several pages of the United States Constitution so fluently that the registrar snatched the book out of her hands and allowed her to register.
My grandfather was well-respected as a farmer in the area. Perhaps that is why the townspeople did not have the hooded element pay him a visit when she went into town to vote for President Truman over Tom Dewey. These "visits" often happened in the South before Selma, when a black person had the temerity to vote.
One aspect of Robinson’s contribution to baseball and race relations is in the manner in which his career ended. In my household there was as much talk about the dignity with which he refused to be a slave under baseball’s “reserve clause” (which bound a player to a team similar to how slaves were bound to their master during the slavery period in American history) as there was talk of his exploits at stealing home plate in the 1955 World Series, much to the consternation of the New York Yankees’ catcher Yogi Berra.
“Before I be a slave,” goes the lyric to an often-sung civil rights anthem, “I’ll be buried in my grave.”
Robinson walked away from the game that meant so much to him rather than be traded on the whim of the owner, as his ancestors had been sold during slavery times in his native Cairo, Ga.
We should never forget that Robinson stood his ground and refused to be traded like chattel. It is his departure and not his entrance into the game of baseball that is his salient contribution to the civil rights movement.
He trotted onto Ebbetts Field April 15, 1947 as a free man, and nine years later he walked away a free man, upholding the dignity of those who had survived the Middle Passage.
It is good for us to remember No. 42 and not forget the dignity with which he took a whole nation on his back as he raced around the diamond, bringing change to the game and to western civilization.
What can the Jackie Robinson experiment teach us about the nation electing its first black president?
Now that we have had one in the Oval Office, mom’s postulation back in 1947 resounds: Will there be others? Perhaps; this is what the great “I hope he fails” push-back from the right has been all about.
Will it take 65 years to appreciate the tremendous contribution that Barack Obama, President No. 44, has made to a “change done come and gone” in a post-Jackie Robinson racial America?
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