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.