Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Remembering Jackie Robinson

This past April 15 marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League baseball.  When Robinson put on the Brooklyn Dodger uniform to play at Ebbet’s Field against the Boston Braves on April 15, 1947; he broke through the racial barriers that had been established by Major League team owners since before the turn of the century.   To baby boomers like me who were infants during his Major League career, Jackie Robinson was an African-American sports pioneer that continued to fight for the civil rights of his race long after he retired from playing.  But what I did not fully understand at the time was how good Jackie Robinson played baseball.

My love affair with baseball began when I was six years old in 1957, the year after Robinson retired.  So I was not able to collect his baseball card, look at the baseball box scores in the daily newspaper sport pages during the summer to see how well he did, or see him play on television.  The Jackie Robinson I saw marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights campaigns of the 1960’s.  With his speckled gray and black hair, Robinson had an authoritarian voice that spoke out for the concerns of black people with strength and courage that got attention.   As a young black baseball fan, I realized Jackie Robinson was on a higher pedestal than Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Ernie Banks and the other African-American players I idolized whose careers were in progress.

But after reading a number of the books published about  Robinson written since 1997, the 50 year anniversary of his erasing of baseball’s “invisible color line”; I have an awakened revelation of his playing career.  Although Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues when the Dodgers signed him from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, he had an outstanding Major League career. 

He was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947.   Robinson was voted National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) in 1949 and was in the top ten receiving votes for the award three other seasons.  With a career batting average of .311, Robinson hit over .300 six times and under .295 only twice.  He scored over 100 runs six seasons, and had over 150 hits in seven.  Selected for six All Star Games, Robinson batted .333 in the mid-summer classics.  He also led the National League in stolen bases twice.    

From 1947 -1956, the Dodgers won six National League pennants and one World Championship.  While Pee Wee Reese was the field captain of those winning Dodger teams, Jackie Robinson was the emotional leader; the teams’ heart and soul.  A fierce competitor, his aggressive playing style sometimes antagonized opponents; but it brought an excitement to the game fans had not seen.

What has to be remembered is the pressure he was under.   All that Robinson accomplished his first years was done with the weight of his race on his shoulders.  At the very least, he had to be better than mediocre white players to make it.  If he had failed, who knows how long it would have been before the door opened again for black ballplayers.  But Jackie Robinson did not fail.  Because of his late start, he was 28 years old his first Major League season, Robinson played only 10 years.  But his performance on the diamond during his relatively short career changed baseball forever. 

What are your memories of Jackie Robinson?