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.