Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Jackie Robinson Day

This appeared today on my regular blog:

On this date, 61 years ago, Jackie Robinson put on a Dodger uniform, stepped on to Ebbits Field and made history. He changed the game of baseball forever. He was the first black man to play major league baseball. Today, we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, to honor his courage and acomplishments.

n the late 1940s, Branch Rickey was club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers began to scout Robinson who had joined the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs in 1945 after his discharge from the Army. He played shortstop and had a batting average of .387. Rickey eventually selected him from a list of promising African-American players. Robinson became the first player in fifty-seven years to break the Baseball color line.

Rickey reminded Robinson that he would face tremendous racial animus, and insisted that he not take the bait and react angrily. Robinson was aghast: "Do you want a player afraid to fight back?" Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player "with the guts not to fight back." Robinson agreed to abide by Rickey's terms for his first year.

In 1946, the Dodgers assigned Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals. Jackie proceeded to lead the International League in batting average with a .349 average, and fielding percentage with a .985 percentage. Although the season was emotionally arduous for Robinson with the racist abuse he faced during the team's away games, he also deeply appreciated the enthusiastic support by the Montreal fans who followed his performance with intense interest. Because of Jackie's play in 1946, the Dodgers called him up to play for the major league club in 1947. Robinson made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947, playing first base when he went 0 for 3 against the Boston Braves.

Throughout the season, Robinson experienced harassment at the hands of both players and fans. He was verbally abused by both his own teammates and by members of opposing teams. Some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when Dodger management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, "I don't care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fu#@$n' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you can't use the money, I'll see that you are all traded." When other teams, notably the Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played, NL President Ford Frick let it be known that they would be suspended.

On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies players called Jackie a " ni#$&r" from their dugout, and yelled that he should "go back to the cotton fields." Rickey would later recall that the Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman, "did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united thirty men." Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler admonished the Phillies and asked Chapman to pose for photographs with Robinson as a conciliatory gesture.

Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, who would be a teammate of Robinson's for the better part of a decade, was one of the few players who publicly stood up for Robinson during his rookie season. During the team's first road trip, in Cincinnati, Ohio during pre-game practice, Robinson was being heckled by fans when Reese, the Dodgers team captain, walked over and put his arm around Robinson in a gesture of support that quieted the fans and has now gained near-legendary status. Reese was once quoted saying about Robinson "You can hate a man for many reasons; color is not one of them." In addition, the Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who understood the rookie's difficulties considering he himself faced considerable anti-Semtism earlier in his career, made a point of welcoming Robinson to the major leagues. In the October 1948 issue of SPORT magazine, Robinson said he didn't expect to see baseball's color barrier fall in his lifetime. "I thought it would take another war," he said.

That year, he played in 151 games, hit .297, led the National League in stolen bases and won the first-ever Rookie of the Year Award (this award was renamed "The Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award" in 1987). Although Jackie played every game that season at first base, Robinson spent most of his career as a second baseman.

Two years later, Robinson won the 1949 National League Most Valuable Player award, leading the league in batting average and stolen bases. By this point, he had galvanized fan support to the point that a popular song, Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?, reached the national Billboard R&B chart. In 1952, he blasted the Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color line five years after his own crosstown debut.

Robinson was a crucial component of the 1951 "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" pennant race. On the final day of the season, and with the Giants having already won their game, the Dodgers needed to beat the Phillies just to force a playoff. The game went into extra innings, and in the bottom of the 12th inning, Philadelphia loaded the bases with one out. Robinson made a season-saving defensive play: diving for a soft liner to his right, he injured his elbow but was able to convert the catch into a double play. Robinson then hit a game-winning home run in the 14th inning.

Despite his regular season heroics, the Dodgers lost the pennant on Bobby Thomson's famous home run. Film footage of the home run trot and celebration shows Robinson, observantly but dourly watching Thomson's feet in case he failed to touch all of the bases. Most fans know that the Giants were stealing signs and tipped off Thomson on what pitch was coming. They are a bunch of cheaters.

Although he reached the World Series six times in his career, Robinson would win his only championship ring when the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series. After the 1956 season, Robinson was traded by the Dodgers to the Giants. Robinson announced his retirement shortly after the trade; when asked, he made it clear that he had planned to retire before the trade was made, citing his own physical health and family commitments as his main reasons, but also saying that he was always going to be a Dodger.

Robinson was a disciplined hitter and a versatile fielder. He had a .311 career batting average, a .409 career on base percentage and substantially more walks than strikeouts. He was a truly outstanding baserunner. No other player since World War I has stolen home more than Robinson, who did it 19 times in his career. Recent statistical analysis has also indicated that Robinson was an outstanding defensive player throughout his career. During his career, Jackie played in six All-Star games. He is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame and a member of the All-Century Team.

Assessing himself, Robinson said "I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... all I ask is that you respect me as a human being."

On April 15, 1997, the 50th Anniversary of his first big league game, Jackie Robinson's #42 was retired by Major League Baseball, meaning that no future player on any major league team could wear it. Players wearing #42 at the time, some of whom said they did so as a tribute to Robinson, were allowed to continue wearing it, thereby grandfathering the number's retirement. The last player currently wearing the number is New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

At the November 2006 groundbreaking for a new New York Mets ballpark, Citi Field, scheduled to open in 2009, it was announced that the main entrance, modeled on the one in Brooklyn's old Ebbets Field, will be called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Additionally, Mets owner Fred Wilpon said that the Mets and Citigroup would work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation to create a Jackie Robinson Museum and Learning Center in lower Manhattan, as well as fund scholarships for "young people who live by and embody Jackie's ideals."

On April 15, 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson's major league debut, Major League Baseball invited players to wear the number 42 just for that day to commemorate Robinson. The gesture was the idea of Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffy, Jr., who first sought Rachel Robinson's permission, and, after receiving it, asked Commissioner Bud Selig for permission. Selig extended the invitation to all major league teams. Ultimately, more than 200 players wore number 42, including the entire rosters of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Today, Commissioner Selig has again "unretired" Robinson's Jersey for whomever wishes to wear it. As you watch baseball games tonight and you see many players wearing #42, think of this great ballplayer - this great man, and how he helped change the fabric of America and write a new chapter in American History

1 comment:

Sam said...

Nothing like linking back to one of your own posts!