Thursday, April 15, 2010

Forever 42

I am a self-confessed, simple-minded little rube. On some level I suppose I take comfort in acknowledging that upfront....as if it lessens the sting when the non-believers eventually learn it for themselves. The nice thing about being located on the food chain a mere caddy corner away from the rock is that it opens up the mind orifice to receiving a lot of stimulation from a variety of sources.

The computer on my desk is festooned with a number of Post-It notes. If and when I stumble across a turn of phrase that resonates with me for whatever reason, I tend to write it on such a note and tape it to my computer. Before you think me a complete fool (a ship that may have already cast off its bow line if not sailed away altogether) let me assure you that the notes are taped to the borders of the monitor and not on the screen itself. My vision is challenged enough without downsizing the available screen size.

Among the notes that are attached to my monitor are ones that seem particularly topical today. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear - Ambrose Redmoon. Without heroes we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go - Bernard Malamud. I would submit that both apply with equal force and effect to Jackie Robinson.

Sixty-three years ago today, Jack Roosevelt Robinson became the first African-American player to play Major League baseball when he took the field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was already twenty-eight years old when he made his debut but it was not as if his seemingly late arrival in "The Show" was a result of him sitting around and dawdling or some such thing. Au contraire, by the time Robinson played his first game in his #42 uniform for Mom's beloved Dodgers, he had already lived one hell of a life.

As a teenager, Robinson was a sprinter on the U.S. Olympic Team and in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin won the silver medal in the 200-meter dash, finishing second to Adolf Hitler's worst nightmare at those Games: Jesse Owens. Robinson was a four-sport letterman at UCLA. He served in the United States Army during World War II as a Second Lieutenant. He never saw combat. At least not against any members of the Axis. During boot camp he was arrested when he refused to move to the back of a segregated bus. He was subsequently court-martialed. At his trial, he was acquitted of all charges and ultimately received an honorable discharge from the Army.

I cannot fathom what it must have been like to have been Jackie Robinson on the afternoon of April 15, 1947. He was not the only African-American player on his team or on the field or in the National League. He was the only African-American player in the Major Leagues. He stood alone in the cross hairs of countless people - including some of his teammates and some of the Ebbets Field denizens who hoped against hope every year for a little October magic for their beloved bums - who hated him simply because of the color of his skin. They were not compelled to learn a thing about him before concluding that they hated him. Understanding takes knowledge. Knowledge takes learning. Learning takes time. Fear's a powerful thing. And it is a damned sight quicker.

Mercifully not everyone was aligned against him - although from all I have ever read and watched of Jackie Robinson it seems as if universal opposition would not have deterred him - and he lasted not merely for one day but for ten years. He played only for the Dodgers, retiring after the 1956 season rather than accept a trade to the rival New York (soon-to-be San Francisco) Giants. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1947, the MVP in 1949, a six-time All-Star and - in 1955 (after failing in four prior attempts to defeat the Yankees) he helped bring Mom her only World Series title. In 1962, a decade and a half after his first game as a member of the Dodgers, he was enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame in Cooperstown.

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives. Almost seven decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and slightly less than four decades after his death, the importance of Robinson's life remains measurable. When he retired he was quoted as saying, "The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it." It turns out he was wrong by half. The game of baseball did indeed do much for him but all these years later it has not come close to keeping an even balance sheet in terms of what he did for it - and what he continues to do for it.

Baseball is a sport imbued with numbers. There are numbers for everything and they are broken down and broken down again. Today and tonight at every Major League stadium, it is all about one number: 42. If you watch the Yankees tonight (and Vazquez pitched yesterday so you might get to see a "W") with someone who is not a baseball fan - be they a child or an adult - then take the time to tell them why every player is wearing the same number.

Not just anyone could have done what Jackie Robinson did. Knowing myself well, I know that I could not have. I would have failed for reasons having nothing to do with my below-average fielding ability and my complete inability to hit a curve. What Robinson did took more than talent. It took more than character. It took courage. A quality possessed by none but the brave.

-AK

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