Do not do Jackie Robinson a disservice by thinking of him only as a great baseball player. Baseball was only his medium to convey a deeper message than turning double plays and stealing home.
More than 30 years after his death, Robinson should be hailed as the second most important African American of the 20th century after Martin Luther King, especially during Black History Month.
Before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947, the black athlete in America had only notably reached national prominence three times: Jack Johnson (heavy weight boxing champion 1908-1913), Jesse Owens (1936 Olympics) and Joe Louis (heavy weight boxing champion and WWII serviceman 1935-1949).
Although all three men by their athletic feats helped in some ways to lessen the prejudices plaguing America, their actions were fleeting and too far in between.
Jack Johnson and Joe Louis could not fight every day, and Jesse Owens could not run every day. Thus, the national sports scene on a daily basis was seldom dominated or even made mention of these three champions.
The only major sport during the first half of the 20th century that continually dominated headlines on a daily basis was baseball. This provided Jackie Robinson with an opportunity that Johnson, Owens and Louis never had.
Robinson, by playing baseball every single day from April to October, was essentially out there, on the field and on display, for the entire public to see. Nobody could escape it or turn a blind eye, because right there making headlines in the newspapers and on the radio every single day, was a black man.
This was incredibly significant at the time. Never before had a black man continually made headlines on a daily basis. Robinson was being thrust onto America’s most popular social venue, and doing this in America’s largest city.
In the history of sports in America, nobody had ever faced the overwhelming amounts of pressure, as did Robinson. Totally forget the enormous pressure of a rookie baseball player having to be good enough to start in the Majors every day. That pressure was extreme in Robinson’s case because his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, were the best team in the National League and a replacement was never far away.
The real pressure Robinson faced was controlling his emotions. Robinson was at heart, ragging black, a characteristic born of the daily evils he faced as a child in rural Georgia. He was polished enough as a person, though, to understand professionalism and control his temper when racist remarks were made, but only to a certain degree. Now, Robinson was entering the business of baseball, where no black man had ever been. To prevent chaos on the ball field, Robinson agreed that he would turn a blind eye to all racist remarks for his first three years playing with the Dodgers. This simply meant that when an opposing player got in Robinson’s face and called him “nigger,” Robinson could do nothing.
Eventually Robinson’s agreement to not fight back was removed a year early, but during the 1947 and 1948 season, he sacrificed all of himself for the good of the black race. This display of passive resistance was exceedingly more difficult than the same resistance championed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, because the evilness was right smack in front of Robinson’s face every single day. He was totally alone to face it. The racism was not filtered down through the backing of thousands of supporters as followed Gandhi and King. Robinson had nobody to turn too for a hug and to tell him, “it’s okay Jack, I’m with you.”
Even after Robinson’s agreement to not fight back was removed, his will to fight was somehow lessened. Though deep inside he remained the same man, willing to fight any racist, outwardly, his true aggressive emotions had been simply worn down.It was like a balloon busting at the seems and then eventually loosing all its momentum while maintaining its form. Robinson, like the balloon, was empty inside.
Imagine, this mighty man could do nothing when skinny ignorant white players threw baseballs at his head and spiked his legs. Not being able to fight back had killed him.
Just ten years after he began playing with the Dodgers, Robinson’s health was rapidly declining. His hair turned white, he developed diabetes and eventually would go nearly blind. Only 53 years old in 1972, one of the most gifted and strong athletes in American history was dead of a heart attack.
Today Jackie Robinson has still not fully transcended American sports and become the courageous patriot in the public’s eyes. The man literally died a slow death for the advancement of his race, actions so noble that his face should be on elementary school classroom walls alongside George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
The fruits born of Robinson’s sacrifice are far more tangible to the American public today, because there is an obvious and direct connection between the breaking of the color barrier, and the subsequent paving of the road for the Hank Aaron’s and Michael Jordan’s of the world.
At Quinnipiac, you might be surprised how well members of the baseball team realize Robinson’s true sacrifices as a civil rights leader, rather than just a ball player.
“He was in a perfect position to have an enormous impact on America as a whole,” said Dave Bennet, junior pitcher on the Quinnipiac baseball team. “The world of professional athletics is now dominated by black athletes. This road was paved by Jackie Robinson himself.”
Ari Kafa, a sophomore pitcher, said Robinson is an inspiration.
“No matter how violent people became, no matter how many death threats he received, Jackie Robinson continued to play,” Kafa said.
Senior center fielder, Keith Avery, said, “Jackie Robinson worked hard and went through a lot of pain and suffering to break the color barrier.”
Avery’s statement is perhaps more true than the superficial meaning of “pain and suffering.” This is because Robinson didn’t simply break the color barrier by trotting out onto the field. Robinson had to endure and sustain his baseball ability and temper his emotions over two full seasons to break the barrier.
“Jackie was a true trailblazer in every sense of the word,” said Dan Falco, senior economics major. “He opened doors for so many, in not just baseball, but in every sport.”
Falco too, understood that as Robinson broke down barriers in baseball, vibrations from his actions rippled into all sports and eventually into the general business community of America.
As a “trailblazer,” Robinson had transcended sports and become a true champion of peace. In this sense, the magnitude of his deeds can be on the same level as Martin Luther King. Both achieved success for their race through passive resistance.