number 42, reprised

Allan and I took our respective posts from yesterday and combined them in one essay, which hopefully will run elsewhere.

Here you go.

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April 15, 2007 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 line," is a story of tremendous courage and revolutionary thinking.

In recent years, Major League Baseball, as an organization, has been celebrating Robinson, showing off the increasingly international – and integrated – game. In 1997, Robinson's number 42 was retired by every Major League team, the only player to receive that honor. Players already wearing 42 were allowed to continue until the end of their careers (only one remains, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera). When Rivera retires, no player will ever wear number 42.

Every Major League club has put number 42 on the retired-number wall of its park. This is generally done with a different color or style, placed apart from 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 highlight history.

On Sunday, April 15, 2007, number 42 was temporarily taken out of retirement. On that day, 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 six entire teams are wearing 42, including the Dodgers. It's a terrific idea, and gets players involved in the celebration. Both Ken Griffey, Jr., who originally petitioned MLB to allow him to wear Robinson's number for a day, and Bud Selig, who expanded the idea, are to be commended for their efforts.

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

Baseball announcers routinely refer to Robinson as having "broken the color bar" or "having crossed the color line". Very rarely do they explain what this actually means. Jon Miller, who calls the Sunday night ESPN baseball game along with Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, recently explained 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." It was wonderfully surprising to hear – and our surprise underscored how rarely that statement is made.

When Jon Miller said that last Sunday, it was startlingly different from, for example, what the Red Sox announcers said on Friday. (We're not singling them out; they're just the announcers we hear most.) Jerry Remy, a former player, 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.

We hear about the color line – but not about how impenetrable that barrier was, how hatred fueled its decades-long existence, how the owners and officials of every team in baseball banded together and refused to sign any Black players. Robinson's debut is sanitized, and, with very few exceptions, presented with no context whatsoever. No one mentions how 12 more years would pass before every team had at least one African-American player on its roster. (The Red Sox were the last team, in 1959.)

Listening to baseball announcers, one might get the impression that, before Robinson, there were no African-American athletes good enough to make the Majors – that the color line existed because of lack of talent, not rampant racism. As though when Robinson came along in 1947, the baseball establishment said, finally, here's a Black player good enough to play alongside white men – because the Major Leagues would have included Black players for years, but none of them had what it took to reach the pinnacle of the sport. This was the excuse offered by Commissioner "Happy" Chandler when he explained that there was no rule officially banning Blacks. While that was technically true, there was certainly an understanding among the owners that each would never sign a Black player.

Jim Becker covered Robinson's debut for the AP:

It was a time in our country when in many places blacks couldn't stay in the same hotel as whites, eat in the same restaurants, attend the same movie theaters or even drink from the same water fountains in the South. ... There was no rooting in the press box, but many of us in it that day, like Robinson, had served in the Armed Forces and had just helped to defeat Hitler and thought it would be a good idea to defeat Hitlerism at home.

That's another thing. No one talks about what Robinson went through after April 15, 1947: the death threats, the separate hotels, the restaurants that wouldn't serve him. The racial slurs shouted from the stands – and from the opposing dugout. No one talks about the reaction from the other National League teams, one of which – the Cardinals – threatened to go on strike if Robinson remained in uniform.

Some of this is down to sports announcers' continuing assumptions that everyone watching knows the same things they do. 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, if any. 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.

But this alone does not account for the absence of context and explanation. This is about America's discomfort with talking about race.

Many people seem to feel that stating a fact about race is in itself somehow prejudicial. Remember 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!

Many years ago, on a blues pilgrimage to the Mississippi Delta, we took a tour of a former plantation. The tour guide showed us the slave quarters and said, "This is where the workers lived." Workers? We looked at each other, shocked. Another man on the tour spoke up. "You mean the slaves, right?" 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? Do they confuse stating a fact with condoning it?

Baseball announcers will never describe – or even refer to – the color of a player's skin. If you listen to games on the radio, you'll hear players described by body shape and size, by hair color and facial features, even by the creative shapes of their facial hair, but never as dark-skinned, fair-skinned, black, tan, white, or any other description that connotes race. Why is that? Skin color is physical description, yet it's always omitted. It's as if in trying to be inclusive, we believe that any mention of skin color equals bias. As if, because we want judgments to be color-blind, we pretend we actually are color blind.

There's 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, playing high-quality, professional baseball right in the same cities. But the owners chose to field inferior teams – chose not to be as competitive as possible – rather than integrate.

Some managers, like the Giants' legendary manager John McGraw, wanted (and tried) to integrate much earlier. McGraw tried to "pass" a light-skinned African-American player by calling him "Cuban", but alone, he couldn't beat the system. Most went right along with the "tradition", and many commissioners and officials went well out of their way to maintain it.

Major League Baseball has made April 15 a day of celebration. But it was the institution of Major League Baseball that created and nurtured the Jim Crow conditions that prevented so many Americans from playing Major League ball. Now Baseball congratulates itself 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 game of baseball has always been a reflection of America, and this is what America does. 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 during their lifetimes. Now their images adorn the walls of grade schools across the land. Malcolm X's face is on a postage stamp.

America will always try to thwart revolutionary ideas. Then, after enough time has passed, it often ends up celebrating the achievements of those 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.


LJCohen said...

Wow--this is an excellent article. (Found my way here from Joy Of Sox where I often lurk and rarely comment).

I've made Robinson's story required reading for both my baseball-mad sons.

My dad saw Robinson play in Rochester NY while Robinson was in the minors. (I'm not sure if he was on the Rochester team or playing against the team).

L-girl said...

Thank you so much! Re-reading it reminded me we should try again to get it published elsewhere it on another anniversary.

When your dad saw Robinson, he was probably playing for Montreal, the Dodgers' minor league team. That's a really cool family memory.

Thanks for your comment. Maybe I'll see you around JoS. :)