It’s April and spring is in the air. April also marks the beginning of the Major League Baseball season. They call the first game of the season “Opening Day.” I like the term opening day. Openness implies inclusion. Spring conjures up images of new life, hope and endless possibilities. However, there was a time that Opening Day in baseball didn’t always hold any possibilities, let alone hope, for African-Americans.
That changed forever on Opening Day, April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson took his position at first base for Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers. It was only then that Baseball became what it had always claimed to be, our true National pastime. Rickey, the Dodgers and Jackie Robinson helped to make America a better place.
The shame that integration didn’t happen in the “national” pastime much sooner can’t be denied either. As a kid none of that made any sense to me. I heard stories of Satchel Paige for instance and thought surely some team in the major leagues could have benefited from his inclusion on their team. As a kid I thought how colossally stupid the owners of all Major League Baseball teams (except the Dodgers) must have been in those days.
I didn’t understand racial prejudice or even consider that it was possible for people to have thoughts that could align themselves with such a bizarre way of thinking. Then as an adult, I realized my thinking as a child was spot on. Racial prejudice, while many things, most notably pure evil, is also just plain stupid.
By the 1947 baseball season we were less than two years removed from World War II. America was still aglow with what many consider our nation’s finest hour. The U.S. and its allies fought and defeated Hitler’s racist regime in Europe. Then returning G.I’s of every race began looking at the absurdity of America’s racial policies and attitudes through a more worldly perspective.
There couldn’t be segments of our society whose thoughts aligned themselves with some of the same principles that left Germany in ruins...could there?
Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like baseball and blues music so much. These two institutions are more democratic than most things in American life. They are traditions that are as American as anything this country has ever produced. They are capable of reflecting back to us all what makes this country great and sometimes the things that make us not so great. In jazz and blues music, as well as baseball, you can either play or you can’t. The best person for the job gets the job regardless of race, gender, nationality or any other artificial consideration that has nothing to do with performance.
Robinson could play. His performance on the field in his first year in the major leagues is one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of sports.
The attention, the pressure and the burden that was placed on this man’s shoulders is almost unfathomable. Baseball is the type of sport where distraction, added pressure and anger almost never add to a player’s performance. Jackie had all of these things. He overcame these obstacles and was an instant success. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year and Dodger attendance soared. As it turned out Branch Rickey’s “experiment” was good for business.
Jackie Robinson, a U.S. Army Veteran, was a monumental figure in the civil rights movement. This is because there wasn’t a civil rights movement when Jackie dug his spikes in the dirt at home plate in 1947. Some heroes become symbolic figures over time or after their death. Jackie Robinson was a symbolic figure in his time, day after day in front of thousands of people. He represented the hopes of every American who believed in liberty and justice. He needed to be a symbolic figure that could hit a curveball and field blistering line drives.
Jackie was a catalyst for change not just in terms of race relations in America, but in terms of the fortunes of the Dodgers. “Dem Bums from Brooklyn” became contenders and even National League Champions in the years following that heroic opening day in 1947. The Dodgers finally beat the crosstown rival Yankees and won their first World Series in 1955.
Regardless of Robinson’s achievements, his leadership and poise and grace under pressure, there were still some people who would not give him his due. These types were slow to embrace change. Many were not comfortable with a black man of dignity, accomplishment and stature. Sound familiar?
In 1987, on opening day, long time Dodger General Manager, former roommate of Jackie Robinson and the man who for decades had been a vanguard in the arena of minority hiring practices, Al Campanis, spoke to Ted Koppel on Nightline. On this national television broadcast Campanis fielded questions related to minority hiring and recruitment in baseball’s front offices. During this discussion, Capanis let loose a series of asinine comments that were laced with archaic racial stereotypes. The Dodgers’ owner Peter O’Malley fired Campanis on the spot.
We too can all summon enough courage to not tolerate the racial slurs we overhear in public from time to time. We can challenge those people to not engage in that kind of discourse out loud. It is offensive and wrong. There is no place for that in any public (or private) place and that includes social media. We can remind those people that words often become actions. We can change hearts and minds. We can be like the Dodgers were on opening day in 1947 and again in 1987. We can be like Branch Rickey and Peter O’Malley and act courageously, swiftly and decisively when racism raises its ugly head. We should be tolerant of almost everything in life...except intolerance.
To put this in modern practical context it is why Donald Trump needs to be stopped. By pandering to the ugly, ignorant and quite frankly, just plain stupid, he has taken a huge lead in one of America’s two major political parties. His delusional disciples aren’t patriots. They are steeped in fear born out of Nazi style scare tactics. These are not people of intelligence, decency, courage and conviction like Jackie Robinson. The chance of this demigod and his ilk making America great again is less than Nazi Germany achieving world domination.
As the primary season makes its way to the final innings, I urge our readers here in the U.S. to get out and vote. Remember evil and stupid are not mutually exclusive.
The baseball and blues festival seasons are also getting underway. These two passages of spring are a welcome diversion from a troubled world. They can also be an example of what makes America great. Integration, tolerance, acceptance, teamwork and cooperation are core American values. So is having a good time.
Let’s play ball and let’s dance. After all, spring is in the air.
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