Today is the 69th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which ended a long and shameful era in American history.
In case you missed it on television, I would urge you to go online and watch PBS’s two-part series on the life of Jackie Robinson. Watching his remarkable story brought a lot of disparate thoughts to the surface.
First, Jackie Robinson’s life was similar in many ways to the rise and fall — and rise again — of Muhammad Ali. Both, of course, were great athletes and both were outspoken about racial injustice, but their personas were quite different.
Ali had a boisterous, in-your-face style, while Robinson was soft-spoken and polite. Ali was semi-illiterate, at best, while Robinson was college educated (UCLA) and highly intelligent. But make no mistake about it, both were courageous black heroes who impacted American society in major ways.
Unfortunately, another thing that Ali and Robinson had in common was that both men incurred debilitating diseases at relatively young ages. Ali, who throughout most of his career sported a chiseled, muscular physique, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease more than three decades ago.
For those of us who witnessed some of his historic clashes — especially his two fights with Sonny Liston and his three brawls with Joe Frazier — it’s hard to believe that today’s Ali is the same brash young man we loved or hated at various times so many decades ago.
But Jackie Robinson fared even worse than Muhammad Ali on the health front. While Ali is barely able to function at age seventy-four, Robinson developed diabetes — perhaps in its early stages while he was still playing for the Dodgers — ultimately losing the sight in his right eye and most of the sight in his left eye.
At one point, doctors told him that he would soon have to have both of his legs amputated. But that never happened because, mercifully, Jackie passed away at the tender age of fifty-three. It was a sad day for all Americans, black and white alike.
I’m a sucker for a good love story, and Jackie’s relationship with his wife, Rachel, from the time they first met, was one for the books — right up there with Yuri and Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Rachel, who will be ninety-four in July, was Jackie’s best friend — and the source of his strength — and he leaned heavily on her throughout their fairytale marriage.
It tugs at your heart strings to hear Rachel now say that what she misses most about her beloved husband’s long absence (which, hard as it is to believe, has now been forty-four years) is having someone in her life to whom she could talk to about anything and everything.
But perhaps more than anything else about his life, Jackie Robinson will always be remembered for his awesome mental toughness. It was incredible how he was able to perform at such a high level on the field while handling the daily insults directed at him.
These insults included not only the worst names imaginable, but the fact that he was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates or eat in the same restaurants with them early in his career. Thomas Jefferson, ironically a slave owner himself, described Jackie perfectly when he made his famous observation that “One man with courage makes a majority.”
In the latter years of his ten-year tenure with the Dodgers, Jackie became one of the earliest — and perhaps most influential — dignified black activists. I say dignified, because he wasn’t divisive, he didn’t lead any riots, he didn’t call for violence against anyone, and he never displayed any hatred toward whites.
In other words, Jackie was a legitimate black activist. When one thinks about the class and style he displayed in making his feelings known about racial injustice, one can’t help but to contrast his dignified approach to civil rights to that of the shameless race hustlers of today. I have to believe that if he were still alive, he would be dismayed by the actions of mindless groups like Black Lives Matter and the New Black Panthers.
Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I also believe Robinson would be deeply troubled by the devolution of the black-activist movement and how sinister politicians (including black politicians!) have trapped generations of blacks into government dependency, a dependency that has resulted in the breakup of the once notoriously strong black family unit.
I know it’s difficult for blacks who are now trapped on “Uncle Sam’s Plantation” to understand what politicians and illegitimate black “leaders” are now intentionally doing to them, but hopefully that will change in the future.
What is needed are hundreds, if not thousands, of strong black leaders with the values and character of people like Jackie Robinson, Allen West, Dr. Ben Carson, and Sheriff David Clarke to emerge in the future and succeed in educating new generations of blacks. The key challenge for such leaders will be to help blacks trapped in poverty understand that they are being used by wicked people — people who claim to be looking out for them — for personal gain.
But that’s another story for another day. Today, let’s focus on that all-important moment in American history 69 years ago when the great Jackie Robinson became the first black player to step onto a Major League Baseball diamond. What an amazing moment that must have been for the fans at Ebbets Field.
Rest well, Jackie. You deserve it. Oh, and by the way, a belated thanks to you for sticking thousands of dollars in my pocket back in 1987 when I sold one of your baseball cards.