Sunday, April 15, 2007


As you’ve probably heard or read or sensed from the unexpected (to me) media attention to it (because of many ballplayers wearing his retired number—42—today in commemoration) sixty years ago today Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball.

As you’ve probably also heard or read, he wasn’t the best player in the Negro League at the time, nor the youngest, nor etc.

What he was, was smart, articulate, strong, tough, determined, and willing to follow Branch Ricky’s directions to not react to the slurs and acrimony and insults and taunts and outright racist garbage thrown at him, literally.

And he was my first real hero.

By “real” I mean outside of movie actors or characters in movies, and outside my family and clan and neighborhood, in what was “the real world” then to me.

I was just turning five when he accomplished the feat that many thought would never happen, and many thought could still be reversed, by intimidating Robinson into quitting, or as a result of his initially less than stellar playing.

But by the time of my birthday, in May of 1947, Robinson was not only holding his own, but taking the Brooklyn Dodgers with him into an unexpected first place position, and no one could any longer deny his prowess nor his heroism as the taunts continued but several of his original enemies in the game started to surrender to the reality that playing with a black man not only didn’t lower the standards of the game, but raised them, and made everyone better as a result, not only as players, but as human beings.

Okay okay I won’t get carried away. I’m just happy to see him getting this attention on the airwaves and elsewhere today.

Because although when the Dodgers left Brooklyn I never cared about baseball in the same way again—only occasionally watching the World Series for the individual drama of stories I’d heard about—and I certainly never loved it the way I did for a few short years as a little boy back in the 1940s, I always, and still do, love Jackie Robinson.

As I wrote in a poem to my father decades ago—called “Sports Heroes, Cops, and Lace” (in the collection CANT BE WRONG)—“…when the kids would do the cruel things/kids can sometimes do, I would think of Jackie Robinson and I/would try to be heroic like him,/and sometimes it worked. Even when they called me a jerk/and a race traitor and all the rest…”

He was my hero as a boy, a young man, and still.

So in answer to Paul Simon’s famous musical question—“Where have you gone Jackie Robinson?”—in my life, Jackie Robinson never left, at least not my heart.


Anonymous said...

"How unacceptably stupid, that our fellow humans could cause what seems like the premature deaths of others, when death will come to each of us eventually anyway."
Michael; that has to be one of the truest and most beautiful things you've ever written.

Anonymous said...

Lols, Jackie was undoubtedly a very special man, and because of his character-driven competitiveness as well as his athletic talents, he is the starting second-baseman on my all-time team (with Joe Morgan a very close second). BUT he could never be a hero of mine because, like just about everybody else in the public eye at the time, he folded under the McCarthyite pressures---well, he was a Republican, so maybe he didn't have to fold too much---and countered the truly heroic Paul Robeson's campaign of associating oppressed African-Americans with other oppressed peoples of the world by assuring white America that its Negroes would stand tall in the fight against that bugaboo created by capitalism, the Red Menace. I guess he mignt not be an American icon if he hadn't been so craven, but he sure would have been a hero of mine, too.

Isn't it amazing how so many decent people---Bogart, Bacall, Howard Fast---couldn't stand up to the pressure? I guess being rich and famous can still leave you feeling pretty vulnerable.

But he was an amazing person, and he sure could play ball.


Lally said...

Bogart and Bacall did stand up to the pressure, and for a lot longer than most in Hollywood. After all, they were two of the few really big stars who demonstrated and testified in support of "The Hollywood Ten," etc. As for Jackie, what did he do? He didn't name names did he?

Anonymous said...

Bogart and Bacall were trying to be sensible but got scared. If you want to see how scared, check out the letter they wrote to McCarthy or some other like-minded fascist that's reprinted in Navasky's Naming Names.

As to Jackie, I don't think he had any names to name. But I do remember him giving televised statements assuring white America that its Negroes would stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight against international Communism. And I believe that was in the early '60s, when the worst of the pressures had eased up a little. Being that people in close proximity to my parents were being forced out of their livelihoods and even executed---how can you execute people for treason when there's no declared war being waged?---and being that I never got to see Jackie play except on film, the image of him making that statement is what stays in my mind most in regard to him. A pity, too, considering his genuine heroism.

Well, at least Robeson got to be on a stamp a couple of years ago. I'm sure that didn't sit well with a lot of so-called neocons---which made it all that much more fun to use them!


Lally said...

Yeah, I was happy to see Robeson on a stamp too, one of my heroes. But, if you're going to count the injured and dead caused by various people's political stances in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, then what about Robeson defending a Stalinist regime that murdered—well depends on whose estimate you accept, but let's say a lot more than died over here in that period from athletes and movie stars. If we're going to be angry at people back then in the USA, I think there's enough right-wingers who named names and helped ruin people's careers, many times their rivals, and lead to some suicides or just poverty and etc. but even then I would distinguish between those who thought they were doing something worthy and those who were doing it for their own careers or reputations or etc. Yes Bogey and Bacall backed down (as did Cagney, and then he made Yankee Doodle Dandy to solidify his image as all-American) but they didn't name names, they just wanted to keep themselves from going to prison. So they weren't as brave as the characters they played in movies, they were still braver in initially standing up to the government and demonstrating, even in Washington, in defense of the Hollywood Ten who were sentenced to prison etc. If we were all tested on our political purity and unfailing courage, I suspect most of us would fail, at least I would. I've got more to say, but maybe I'll write another post on it as this has gone on long enough. But I appreciate your knowledge and feedback man, you got me thinking, and I thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, getting people thinking is something I'm good at. Unfortunately, it is generally one of the world's most thankless tasks, since it's the last thing that most people want to do. After all, somewhere in their minds, if they're rational, is the realization that just about every idea they hold near and dear is actually bullshit which doesn't stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny.

Anyway, I have to run, but thanks for taking the discussion in the spirit it was given. And, by the way, while I agree with you that Stalin ultimately deserves the depiction of a somewhat deranged mass murderer, I don't think he gets enough credit for foreseeing the attack of the Soviet Union by the West (in the form of the Nazis) fifteen years before it happened, and moving a huge portion of the Soviet industrial machine to the east of that country, which eventually allowed it to defeat the fascists, thereby probably saving naked fascism from being the prevailing capitalist mode of government. But that's another story.