Today marks the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in major league baseball.
As a kid growing up on Long Island, I was well aware of Robinson’s career, due in large part to the fact that during rainy recesses we watched the Biography episode on his career multiple times (I still have vivid memories of that). However, I was also well aware that he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. I was a Yankees fan. That meant the Dodgers, no matter where they were located, were the enemy … and as the Dodgers relocated to Los Angeles months after my birth, that Brooklyn legacy was one preserved by film and television, not actual memories, although the Mets kept alive various connections to Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodger heritage. Yet it was also true that the memories of those Yankees-Dodgers confrontations remained vivid in the memories of many New Yorkers: it was not until later in life that I realized that among those passionate Dodgers fans was my own mother (this explained her fondness for the Mets: although we went to a Mets game together in 1970, we never went to a Yankees game together … talk about a house divided). It took me some time to realize that Robinson would have been okay with my sentiments, because I felt the way I did because of the uniform he wore, and not because of the color of his skin. It’s true that baseball would never be the same after April 15, 1947: it is also true that baseball became better … and so did we.
Much is made of Robinson’s legacy for baseball and for African American fans and players. We might also ponder his long term legacy for white fans such as myself. I grew up in a world where many of the greatest baseball players were African American: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, and Ernie Banks headed that list. There were also other baseball players of color: for me Roberto Clemente stood out. In New York one saw Elston Howard, Tommie Agee, and Cleon Jones lead the way. I respected them greatly and cheered (and booed) many of them (I was particularly impressed by Frank Robinson, because in those days it was the Orioles, not the Yankees or Red Sox, who stood atop the American League East). As much as I liked Reggie Jackson when he was with the A’s in the early 1970s, I became ambivalent about his Yankees career, which was filled with great moments but also his overweening ego. Nevertheless, I understood that his acquisition by the Yankees before the 1977 season was a sign of the team’s commitment to winning, and it did much to overcome my alienation from the franchise after the 1974 season, when the team traded Mantle’s heir apparent, Murcer, to San Francisco for Mays’s heir apparent, Bobby Bonds. I also recall that I was ambivalent about Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s career home run mark, because Ruth was a Yankee icon … but I made sure to get in front of a television to see him hit No. 715. It would not be until later that I would hear of the abuse Aaron suffered along the way, although I was dimly aware of some of it at the time. Nor would it be until later that I came to appreciate the entirety of Hammerin’ Hank’s greatness … just as some people forget that Jackie Robinson was a terrific ballplayer as well as a tremendous athlete who battled for equality long before he donned a Dodgers uniform.
That said, however, as a kid the baseball players I identified moist closely with were white, notably Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Sparky Lyle, and Don Mattingly (Ed Kranepool was my favorite Met, but I suspect that’s because he wore #7, the number worn by Mantle and New York Ranger hockey great Rod Gilbert). I didn’t think much about this at the time: after all, my favorite New York Knick was Bill Bradley, but I liked Walt Frazier and Willis Reed, and tried to imitate Dick Barnett’s kick on my jump shot. My favorite New York Islander was Bryan Trottier, who was half Native American. It would not be until the 1990s that I would have cause to reflect on the race of the baseball players I most admired. But I do recall that one day I realized that my favorite New York Yankees–Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera–came from very different backgrounds than mine. That expanded still more in the next decade, as Hideki Matsui joined the list. Over time, even as I envy the way Jeter carries himself, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for Rivera the man as well as the baseball player. In short, over time we look to different athletes who are like us, who display qualities we admire, and who resonate in some special way with us … only we begin to expand what all that means. This was true of my daughter Becca, who prepared a National History Day display on Robinson (and advanced to the state finals, although she declined to compete there). It is also true of my daughter Olivia, who embraced baseball when she discovered that her hero was Matsui, because she liked that his nickname was Godzilla … and then she saw Godzilla take down the Phillies in 2009.
None of that would have been possible without Jackie Robinson. So, today, sixty-five years later, as I wear my #42 Yankees jersey (Mariano Rivera’s the last player entitled to wear that number in MLB, for it has been retired league-wide in honor of Robinson), I think of Jackie Robinson, and I say thank you.