4.15.2007

number 42

Today is the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut. Robinson was the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.

The story of how Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey went against baseball's entrenched, unwritten whites-only rule, in what is so glibly called "breaking the color bar" [US spelling purposeful there] is a story of tremendous courage and revolutionary thinking.

My parents grew up in Brooklyn, and like so many of their neighbours, they felt a special pride that their home team had taken this historic step. There's also a Canadian connection, as Robinson played for the Dodgers' minor league club, the Montreal Royals.

(I'd also like to put in a word for Larry Doby! Doby was the first African American to play in the American League. He suffered just as much bigotry and harassment as Robinson, but without the fame.)

In recent years, Major League Baseball, as an organization, has been celebrating Robinson, showing off the increasingly international flavour of the game, and congratulating itself at the same time. In 1997, Robinson's number 42 was retired from all of baseball, the first player to be so honoured. Major League players already wearing 42 were allowed to continue to wear it until the end of their careers (only one remains, and he's worthy of it), then no one else will ever wear the number.

Every Major League club has put number 42 on the retired number wall of its park. This is generally done with a different look - different colours or style, placed apart from the others - than the team's other retired numbers. This causes people to inquire about it all the time: "Why does the 42 look like that?" It's a great opportunity to always mention Robinson.

Today, on the 60th anniversary of Robinson's first game, the number has been temporarily taken out of retirement. Any player who wants to wear 42 as a tribute and homage to Robinson can. At least one person from every team is doing so, and some whole teams are wearing 42, including the Dodgers. I think it's a great way to get players involved in the celebration. Every team will also hold some type of tribute to Robinson. To see the Dodgers' celebration, tune in tonight to ESPN (Rogers SportsNet in Canada).

This is all good. But it's not entirely well.

Baseball announcers routinely refer to Robinson as having "broken the colour bar" or "having crossed the colour line". Very rarely do announcers explain what this means. I recently heard Jon Miller, who calls the Sunday night ESPN baseball game along with Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, explain in more detail. Miller said, "Of course before Jackie Robinson, African Americans were excluded from playing Major League ball. It was a segregated game, until Jackie and Branch Rickey challenged that." I was thrilled - and my reaction underscored how rarely that statement is made.

Newcomers to the sport, or people unfamiliar with US or baseball history, would never know that blacks were not allowed to play in Major League Baseball. Honestly, one could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps there was no black athlete good enough to make the majors, and that the line Robinson crossed was one of athletic achievement.

Some of this is down to sports announcers' continuing assumptions that everyone watching knows the same things they do. (I'm sure they do this in all sports, but I follow only one sport, so all my examples are from baseball.) Baseball announcers refer to "the pine tar game," "the Clemens bat game," "the shot heard 'round the world," and so forth, often giving only the most cursory explanations, or none at all. It's like a big inside joke in a private club. It's a poor way to cultivate a new audience or make new members of the club feel welcome.

However, I don't think this accounts for the lion's share of the lack of explanation of Robinson's achievement. I think it's more of America's discomfort with talking about race. When Jon Miller said that the other night, it was startlingly different from, for example, what the Boston announcers said on Friday. (I'm not singling them out; they're just the announcers I hear most.) Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo kept referring to "what Jackie did" and "Jackie's great achievement" - but never said what it was. Remy mentioned courage, but he never said what Robinson did that was courageous, or why courage was required.

People seem to feel that just stating a fact about race is in itself somehow prejudicial. You know the "Seinfeld" episode where Elaine may or may not be dating a black guy? "Should we be talking about this?" That's a comic version of what happens all the time. Should we be talking about this? Why, of course! It's what happened!

When Allan and I took a tour of a former plantation in Mississippi, the tour guide referred to the slaves as "workers". We immediately looked at each other in horror. Another man on the tour said, "You mean the slaves, right?" (We were so glad someone else had the same thought!) The guide said, "Yes, but we don't like to use that word."

Don't like to use the word?? But that's what they were! They were slaves! There was slavery!

Do people not realize that saying there was slavery, that there was Jim Crow, that there was segregation, does not mean one is saying those things were OK? That somehow stating a fact is tantamount to condoning it?

I notice that baseball announcers will never describe the colour of a player's skin. We are not supposed to notice that! I remember thinking this when Alfonso Soriano played for the New York Yankees. I used to listen to a lot of games on the radio, so I frequently heard physical descriptions of players. I remember Soriano being described as a tall, long-legged young man with a big, handsome smile. All true. He is also very dark-skinned. If I were describing him, I would say he was a tall man with very long legs, very dark skin, and a wide, happy smile.

When I was teaching, I was one of the few white faces in the youth centre. My African American and Latino colleagues routinely described everyone by skin colour! Not only skin colour, of course, but that was always included. It's physical description. It needn't be omitted. But you never hear that in baseball. It's as if, because we want hiring and judgements to be colour-blind, we pretend we are actually colour blind. As if in trying so hard to be inclusive, we believe that any mention of skin colour equals bias.

Whenever I hear announcers say Robinson "broke the color bar," I think, say it! SAY IT! Please: say what he did, and explain - at least a little - why he had to do it.

* * * *

As if this post isn't long enough, if you're still reading, I have another problem with the MLB's celebration of Jackie Robinson: the hypocrisy.

Why did Jackie Robinson have to "break the color bar"? Because Major League Baseball would not allow anyone who looked like him to play.

There was no law against it. There was no physical reason for it. There was only the tradition of segregation - a tradition that baseball officials went out of their way to uphold.

All Major League teams, prior to the Dodgers in 1947, sacrificed quality in order to remain all white. Think of it: all the great stars of the Negro Leagues could have been enhancing the play of the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Cubs or the Tigers. There was a vast pool of untapped talent, right in their own cities. But they chose to field inferior teams, rather than integrate.

Some managers, like the Giants' John McGraw, wanted (and tried) to integrate much earlier, but alone couldn't take on the system. Most went right along with the "tradition", and many commissioners and officials went well out of their way to maintain it.

And now Baseball congratulates intself and celebrates the game's integration, as if they had anything to do with it. As if they had wanted it all along. As if they proudly stood up and chose democracy, rather than were dragged into it, digging in their heels and hollering bloody murder.

The sport of baseball has always been a reflection of America, and this is what America does. (I'm purposely using "America" - the concept - and not "the US" - the country.) Today it hails Martin Luther King, Jr. as a hero for us all to emulate. Yesterday King was a dangerous radical who the FBI wiretapped and the CIA tried to assassinate (and may have succeeded). Countless American heroes, from Susan B. Anthony to Cesar Chavez, were villified, harassed, ridiculed and imprisoned in their lifetimes. Now their images adorn the walls of grade schools across the land. My favourite example of this hypocritical syndrome is Malcolm X on a postage stamp. Think of it.

America always celebrates the achievements of brave, forward-thinking people who refused to be intimidated, who refused to go along with injustice - and who forced the country to do what it should have been doing all along.

* * * *

If you'd like to read more on this from a baseball perspective, I believe Allan and I have both been typing furiously at the same time.

27 comments:

David Cho said...

Very good post, and every educational to a non-baseball fan like me.

And you and I had lunch in the city where Robinson went to high school and junior college. And Robinson lettered in football, basketball, track and of course baseball at my alma mater - UCLA (How come wikipedia doesn't mention his days at UCLA?).

I used to assume Robinson's achievement happened in LA not knowing that that was decades before the team moved to LA. Ah..my ignorance. Don't you think it was fitting that the team moved to LA?

I don't quite get your point about referring to people by their color skin. I hesitate doing that myself, and would use a person's color skin only when I am describing him or her to someone who doesn't know the person and only after every other description fails. Of course, after that, Joe is just Joe, not a black/Hispanic/white/Asian guy.

redsock said...

Reading Deadspin today, I learned that:

"After his career was over, Jackie wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, in which he criticized Martin Luther King for his stance on the Vietnam War."

Robinson also campaigned for Nixon in the 1960 election (against JFK), though he later said he regretted doing so.

L-girl said...

Thanks, David.

I don't quite get your point about referring to people by their color skin.

Well, I don't mean referring to them by their skin color. I mean not being afraid to use that as part of a description.

I hesitate doing that myself, and would use a person's color skin only when I am describing him or her to someone who doesn't know the person and only after every other description fails.

That's exactly what I'm talking about. I think most Americans are afraid to mention anything connected to race, for fear of sounding racist.

Here's another example. When I worked with the Haven Coalition, volunteers would (always) have to meet someone who they had never met before at a train or bus station. On the phone, we would try to get something identifying about them - what jacket they were wearing, what bag they were holding. But we also always asked, White, African-American, Asian, Latina?

A few volunteers found that weird - and I knew they were not going to be comfortable with the whole thing. You are having a stranger stay in your home, but you're not comfortable finding out if they are black or white?

If you meet a person who uses a wheelchair, you don't have to pretend the wheelchair isn't there. If you meet an African-American, do you have to pretend they are not black?

(I don't mean *you*, David, I'm using the general you.)

redsock said...

Don't you think it was fitting that the team moved to LA?

Fitting? Dunno. Unconnected to Robinson, though. They moved 10 years later.

There is a HUGE myth that the Evil Dodgers left Brooklyn and their rabid fans, but the truth is that they were not drawing much attendance in their last years in Brooklyn.

The Dodgers also wanted a new stadium, but Brooklyn wouldn't do it. I think they got the park in Chavez Ravine for like 5 cents. Something shady, if I recall. (I may be wrong.)

The New York Giants left for San Francisco soon thereafter. No one talks about that much, though.

redsock said...

Joni!

L-girl said...

After his career was over, Jackie wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column, in which he criticized Martin Luther King for his stance on the Vietnam War.

He was politically conservative. That much I knew.

His widow, Rachel Robinson, seems very progressive.

L-girl said...

Fitting? Dunno. Unconnected to Robinson, though. They moved 10 years later.

...

The New York Giants left for San Francisco soon thereafter. No one talks about that much, though.


The Dodgers and Giants moving from NYC to California is part of the general 1950s "white flight" - fans moving from urban bases to the suburbs. Air travel had become more affordable, so teams traveling from coast to coast was more feasible. It's all in keeping with the general change of the times.

I think they got the park in Chavez Ravine for like 5 cents. Something shady, if I recall.

It's always something shady. You can bet on it.

L-girl said...

Joni!

Oscar! :)

David Cho said...

You are having a stranger stay in your home, but you're not comfortable finding out if they are black or white?

I would agree with you when it comes to strangers, but not in all cases. When an applicant you have never met comes over for a job interview, I think it's illegal to ask the applicant what race he/she is. And I think it should be. In my case, my surname gives it away.

It is a bit of a quandary. There are still many who form often misguided preconceived notions based on race, and I think people who are uncomfortable about mentioning race have a good intention of minimizing that.

I had a co-worker (Korean) who went the other extreme. Here was a typical conversation.

Me: "On my way to work, this guy cut me off. That was a close call."
Co-worker: "What race was he?"

What was the deal with his over-consciousness with race? What difference does it make? And for him, it was always his "Mexican" neighbor. Okay, this "Mexican" neighbor you have badmouthed for 200th time to me. Does he have a name?

I know you'd frown upon a guy like that as I do. So do you see where my discomfort is coming from? Lots of my own people are like my ex-coworker.

Okay, gotta take Noah out for a walk. Gorgeous out there :P

L-girl said...

When an applicant you have never met comes over for a job interview, I think it's illegal to ask the applicant what race he/she is. And I think it should be.

Of course! But we're not talking about job discrimination here. These men have already made it to the major leagues, someone is just describing what they look like. I'm only talking about physical description.

But I think your (in my opinion) confusion is what many people feel. Like the Seinfeld episode: Should we be talking about this?

It is a bit of a quandary. There are still many who form often misguided preconceived notions based on race, and I think people who are uncomfortable about mentioning race have a good intention of minimizing that.

Some do. I agree. But again, I'm talking about simple physical description.

Me: "On my way to work, this guy cut me off. That was a close call."
Co-worker: "What race was he?"


Yes, I know tons of people like that. It's ridiculous.

But if you're listening to a ballgame on the radio, and the announcer is telling you what the player looks like, why should he go out of his way to not mention what is extremely obvious? I think it's because he thinks he shouldn't, that it's wrong. And in my opinion, it's just a fact - it's not bad or good, it just is.

This is just my take. I don't think yours is wrong in any way, esp as it comes from the best of intentions.

Woti-woti said...

Since I got my Willie O'Ree minor league post in the other thread, it would be remiss not to mention that Robinson spent the season prior making the Dodgers with the Montreal Royals, their top farm club. As a kid, I spent summers in the fifties with my grandfather, who lived outside of Montreal. He was a great baseball fan, and was very proud that Jackie got his start in Montreal. I vividly remember him telling me how wrong it was not to give somebody a chance just because you didn't like the colour of their skin. He referred to Robinson as a 'darkie', not because of any racial malice, but just because that's the way things were then. He used to take me to Royals games. It broke his heart when they folded as a result of the Dodgers' moving west. He never forgave them (the Dodgers) and joined me in cheering for the Sox.

L-girl said...

Robinson spent the season prior making the Dodgers with the Montreal Royals, their top farm club.

As mentioned above. :)

Thanks for sharing your personal memory of this, Woti.

I vividly remember him telling me how wrong it was not to give somebody a chance just because you didn't like the colour of their skin.

I think these early memories have so much to do with how we think about people who are different than ourselves. I know my upbringing was a big part of that for me, too.

It broke his heart when they folded as a result of the Dodgers' moving west. He never forgave them (the Dodgers) and joined me in cheering for the Sox.

Many Red Sox fans were born through that move!

In my family, my grandfather switched over to the Mets. As a child, I could never understand it!

M@ said...

Help me understand the situation -- were black players blocked by the MLB from playing, or was it just a tacit agreement by the team owners/management to keep blacks off their teams?

I mean, it's a lot easier to do that in the context of a segregated society, but I'm not sure I understand how Robinson could have played if the MLB refused to allow black players. (My understanding of the story was that the owner was specifically trying to put a black player on the field, and Robinson had both the incredible athletic skill and the calm temperament that made him an ideal candidate.)

I'm not trying to defend MLB of course -- their part in the race divide is shameful, and I've thought the same thing in their previous celebrations of Robinson. I'm glad you mentioned that.

It truly is astounding that there could have been such a rift between the races so short a time ago. I don't hold out a lot of hope for the USA these days, but my god they've come a long way in a very short time. It's quite incredible. Just the phrase "negro league" seems unreal to me, and that means I'm part of a very, very fortunate generation.

I'm a little surprised at your and Allan's point that not everyone knows what "breaking the color barrier" means. Then again, I'm often surprised at the general public's (and my own, but I hope to a lesser extent) lapses in historical knowledge.

Anyone else remember the SNL sketch "Perspectives" with Tim Meadows? "Have any other players since Jackie Robinson broken the color barrier?" Heh.

redsock said...

Help me understand the situation -- were black players blocked by the MLB from playing, or was it just a tacit agreement by the team owners/management to keep blacks off their teams?

While the National Association of Base Ball Players ruled in 1868 that it would disband "any club including one or more colored persons", there were several competing major leagues and a few black players did play baseball -- in 1878 and again in 1884.

But all minor leagues were segregated by the end of the 1898 season and it became an informal agreement -- no actual rule, though -- that African-Americans were not to participate in professional baseball.

(My understanding of the story was that the owner was specifically trying to put a black player on the field, and Robinson had both the incredible athletic skill and the calm temperament that made him an ideal candidate.)

That's the basic storyline.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis -- baseball's commissioner since 1920 -- was firmly opposed to segregation, but he died in 1944. (Happy Chandler, the next commissioner, was a bit more open-minded.)

Wikipedia:

"... that fact along with changing public attitudes presented an opportunity. On August 28, 1945, Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract. On October 23, 1945, it was announced that Robinson would join the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' International League affiliate, for the 1946 season. He would end up as the league's batting champion, and led the Royals to a dominant league championship.

"People noted that Rickey's determination to desegregate Major League Baseball was born out of a combination of idealism and astute business sense. The idealism was at least partially rooted in an incident involving a team for which Rickey worked early on. An African-American player was extremely upset at being refused accommodation at the hotel where the team stayed because of his race. The business element was based on the fact that the Negro Leagues had numerous star athletes, and logically, the first Major League team to hire them would get first pick of the players at a reasonable price.

"Five days before the start of the 1947 season, Rickey purchased Jackie Robinson's contract from the minor leagues ... Rickey's vision and action had set the stage for the previously mediocre Dodgers to be contenders for decades to come. And it opened the door for other innovative leaders like Bill Veeck of the Cleveland Indians, who integrated the American League soon thereafter."

----

We should remember that not every Dodger wanted to play with a black man. Robinson suffered abuse from his own teammates.

L-girl said...

I don't hold out a lot of hope for the USA these days, but my god they've come a long way in a very short time. It's quite incredible.

It's an even shorter time than that. You really have to start counting, I think, at 1964. So yes, African Ameicans have come a long way... but look what it took to get there. The civil rights movement cannot be underestimated. It was a social revolution.

I'm a little surprised at your and Allan's point that not everyone knows what "breaking the color barrier" means. Then again, I'm often surprised at the general public's (and my own, but I hope to a lesser extent) lapses in historical knowledge.

This is part of my feeling that American culture is ahistorical. Several readers disagreed, but I didn't recognize the US in the pictures in their words.

Anyone else remember the SNL sketch "Perspectives" with Tim Meadows?

I'm sure Garrett Morris had a good Jackie Robinson bit too, but I can't remember what it was right now... Speaking of "the one black man allowed in the club"... :)

L-girl said...

I just came home from work and put on the ESPN game (it's been taping).

ESPN's Stuart Scott is interviewing one of Jackie Robinson's teammates, Don Newcombe.

Newcombe was a pitcher (the first African-American to win 20 games in the majors, the only player to win the Cy Young, the MVP and ROY awards), and he was sometimes spoken of as the possible first black to play in the ML.

He's talking about how he never could have done what Jackie did, about how Jackie's background (college, California) prepared him in a way that his own background in NJ never could have. He's also talking about Martin Luther King Jr coming over his house for dinner!

I'm so glad I've been taping the whole game. We can FF through most of the game and just watch the interviews and tributes. There might be some really good bits in it, if people like Newcombe are on.

L-girl said...

We should remember that not every Dodger wanted to play with a black man. Robinson suffered abuse from his own teammates.

But then there was Pee Wee Reese. He always downplayed his support of Jackie as just doing the right thing, being a good teammate, but he put himself on the line.

redsock said...

You really have to start counting, I think, at 1964.

Only 100 years after the Civil War!

(David Eggers's old magazine Might once ran a big historical timeline. It was hilarious and I cannot do it any kind of justice. But at various points, there would be entries like: "1805: X does Y; only 115 years before women can vote." Trust me, it was very clever and very well done.)

redsock said...

"On May 28, 1962, Don Newcombe signed with the Chunichi Dragons of Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball, becoming the second American player ... to play professional baseball in Japan."

!!!

David Cho said...

I became a big fan of college basketball and football, but not baseball.

Always wondered why baseball never became big until I learned that baseball always had a elaborate minor league system which signed players out of high school, leaving leftovers for colleges.

That it interesting because had baseball not been discriminatory, we would have never known Robinson donning a UCLA uniform. Did you know he lettered in baseball, basketball, football and track?

But I still wonder. What is it so different about baseball that it has established its own minor league system while basketball and football rely on colleges as their de-facto minor leagues?

David Cho said...

It's an even shorter time than that. You really have to start counting, I think, at 1964.

Laura, now that as an adult realizing how 10-15 years can go by in a blink of an eye, it is unreal to think that when I came to the US in 1980, the country had gone through radical changes. 1964 was just 16 years before I moved here!

Studied the civil rights movement in my history class, and I treated it as ancient history. That was a looonnngggg time ago.

But since 1980, I don't know how much has changed really. And that was .. gulp! .. 27 years ago.

David Cho said...

Omission:

When I said above "Always wondered why baseball never became big," it should read

"Always wondered why baseball never became big ON CAMPUS."

Sarah Gates said...

You know, it's funny, I just popped over as requested to share an historical tidbid that I'd posted over at Joy of Sox, but I've been totally distracted by this line of conversation.

Your story about the plantation tour and their avoidance of the word slave just touched a nerve with me. While I like your idea that they felt as though the use of the word condoned the act, I think (sadly) that it may just be another instance of American ostrich-ism. If we stick our heads in the sand and ignore that, gloss it over in PC rhetoric, IT NEVER HAPPENED. We do it all the time, and it terrifies me. It's like not using the word "genocide" to describe the violence in the Sudan. Word choice shouldn't have the power to change the fact of a thing, but the more we distance ourselves from our history, the more we do change it - in the perceptions and ultimate conclusions of the people just learning about it.

I think you're right when you say that American culture (that may be an oximoron) is ahistorical. Recently I was reading something on the train (I think it was in the NYT on the birthday celebrations for Gabriel García Márquez) that referenced banana republics, and I thought to myself, "there's a whole generation of people who think a banana republic is just a moderately expensive place to buy a shirt." I was amused. Until I got to work and told a friend about the thought. Another (slightly younger) friend of ours looked at me blankly and asked what else they were. This is an intellegent, sensitive person with a college degree, but like so many others in this country, she has an exceptionally limited scope to her awareness. She's dead-on with the celebrity gossip though.

Sarah Gates said...

Bah! And in my distraction, I entirely forgot my tidbit, which was this:

When Cuban players Armando Marsans and Rafael Almeida were called up from the minors to play for Cincinatti in 1911, the front office required them to bring notarized paperwork from the Cuban authorities stating that they were of unmixed white blood. These guys wren't dark skinned at all - they're the first and third guys here.

The fans and the press were extremely negative to both players at first just on the suspicion that they might not be white. They had both played in the negro leagues (as was customary for cuban league players who wanted to work year-round), which I would guess helped to fuel the vitriol. Yes, baseball did a thorough job of excluding black players, but not without the assent and assistance of the fan base and the press corps.

L-girl said...

Hey Sarah, thanks for stopping by, and for your *excellent* comments re ostrich-ism, language and history. You are right on the money. Allan and I combined/edited both our posts and turned them into an essay, which I think will be online later today or tomorrow. Now I'm sorry I didn't include this idea.

L-girl said...

Always wondered why baseball never became big until I learned that baseball always had a elaborate minor league system which signed players out of high school, leaving leftovers for colleges.

A lot of good players do go to college these days. The college world series is a great talent showcase.

But I still wonder. What is it so different about baseball that it has established its own minor league system while basketball and football rely on colleges as their de-facto minor leagues?

Baseball was and is a sport for working class people (now not so much in the US as internationally - Latin America, eg). Through most of baseball's history, people from humble backgrounds didn't go to college. Baseball was a way up and out of the farm or the factory.

Football and basketball were developed in colleges, so the schools became the minor leagues. Baseball was developed on its own, and college baseball was introduced much later.

I'm not a baseball historian, but we do have one here at wmtc, so Redsock, please correct me if that's incorrect.

L-girl said...

David Eggers's old magazine Might once ran a big historical timeline.

I remember this! (Although I would have said McSweeney's, not Might, but you would know better than me, since I am not a fan.) It was hilarious! I wish we could find it somewhere.

Which does not mean I'm asking you to look through 15 boxes in the basement.