In the same week that saw New York radio personality Don Imus freed from his radio duties by CBS in the wake of the almost universal backlash he received following his “nappy-headed hoes” slight of the Rutgers women’s basketball team players, many others were celebrating another triumph of social advancement over racial injustice: Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues in the modern era, who played his first game 60 years ago on April 15, 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
At the time, the moment received much less notice. Robinson went 0 for 3 in a loss and the significance of the game was lost on the crowd, who would begin regularly showering the stadium with racial epithets as the season progressed. In fact, in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies merely a week after he crossed the “color line” of Major League Baseball, Phillies players called Jackie a “nigger” from their dugout, and added that he should “go back to the cotton fields.”
Nevertheless, Robinson was undaunted.
He would receive Rookie of the Year honors that year for his brilliant first season. He hit .297 and led the National League in stolen bases.
His commitment to stand up for the rights of not only African-Americans, but all minorities, created the belief that America’s Pastime would indeed include all Americans.
However, while Robinson’s accomplishments on the field have rightly earned him acclaim from sports enthusiasts (his record of 19 stolen home bases remains unchallenged) and his breaking down of color barriers in American team sports opened doors for the hundreds of black athletes who followed, what should never be forgotten is Robinson’s equally admirable record of political activism.
In the 1960s for example, he was a driving force in the establishment and eventual success of Freedom Bank, an African-American-owned and operated business. He served as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces in the early 1940s and in 1944, foreshadowing his courage on the field three years later he faced court-martial charges for insubordination by refusing to follow an order to move to the back of a segregated military bus in Texas. Though a military jury did, in fact, acquit Robinson on the charges, it was a political statement that spoke volumes about his character and commitment to equality for all people.
To commemorate the historic day Jackie Robinson first stepped up to home plate wearing his Dodgers number 42 uniform, many current major leaguers last Sunday wore his number in recognition of the accomplishment. The idea was proposed by Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who requested permission from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to wear the number 42 to mark the occasion. (Robinson’s number was retired throughout Major League Baseball in 1997) Selig agreed to allow the gesture and nearly 200 other players followed suit.
Robinson’s field of dreams saw many poor harvest seasons, droughts and dreary winters, but when he built the foundation using the tools of social consciousness and political activism, future generations of players and fans did indeed come.