I’ve listened to a lot of commentary in recent days about Jackie Robinson, the man who broke baseball’s racial barrier in 1947 when he became the first African-American to suit up in the big leagues.
I believe it was the Boston Celtics basketball legend Bill Russell – the first black coach in the National Basketball Association – who said it best. Robinson, he said, probably wasn’t the best player in the Negro League when the big leagues were looking for a player to break that barrier. But he possessed the strength of character, the spine of steel and the resolve to withstand what everyone knew was coming: the hate-filled racial epithets that would be thrown at him.
And he stood up and stood tall in the face of it all.
I’m going to see the film “42” later today with my wife and one of my sons. I’m looking forward to seeing how Hollywood tells this compelling story. I pray the filmmakers tell the truth as I understand it, which is that Jackie Robinson was willing to pay a huge price for the chance to play against the best baseball players in the world. He didn’t pay that price stoically at all times. He was hurt emotionally many times along the way. But he tried his best to show the public face of strength.
Some years ago, MLB did something unprecedented. The league retired a number, 42. That was number Robinson wore on his Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. I’m aware that at least one player is wearing the number today, Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, who’s going to retire at the end of this season. But the big leagues no longer will allow any team to issue that number to another player ever again.
I cannot think of a player who deserves that honor more than Jackie Robinson.
Robinson died in 1972 in his early 50s of diabetes-related complications. I so wish he could be here to soak up the respect and love he has engendered. Lord knows he didn’t get it in 1947.