With apologies to the Bard of Avon, I have been sick to death of players, no matter what sport they may play, protesting what they perceive to be social and political ills. Politicians of all stripes encourage them, but in reality what does a baseball, basketball or football player really know about the real world? I respectfully refrain from including any theatrical celebrity who use the bloody pulpit of their various stages to display their vast ignorance of the real world.
My first experience with a sport’s celebrity dates back to my youth. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the baseball team that brought joy to my childhood. Even though I lived in Queens, one of only two boroughs that did not have its own team, (Staten Island was the other one) I could root for the Dodgers, who because of Jackie Robinson soon became America’s team.
Strangely enough, I was never a big Jackie Robinson fan. When I first learned about baseball he was in his declining years. But so was Pee Wee Reese, who quickly established himself in my young heart as the leader of the team. While Robinson was loud and flamboyant, Reese was the player captain from Louisville, whose quiet demeanor led the team to its many victories while I was a young fan.
It was only fitting that Reese fielded the last groundout off the bat of the hated Yankees’ Elston Howard in game #7 for Brooklyn’s only World Series victory in 1955. Robinson was not a big contributor to that victory but in many ways his energy or what I called black fire in my 1982 monograph, A Fan’s Memoir, propelled the Dodger team. Ironically, it was his steal of home in the first game, a loss at Yankee Stadium that emerged as the most celebrated play of the series. In retrospect, it wasn’t a great play but merely two blown calls by the umpire. (Robinson was clearly out but Yankee catcher Yogi Berra had interfered.)
I will admit that, next to Willie Mays, Robinson was the most electrifying player in the game. He really knew how to dance on the base paths. I was at a game and only 50-60 feet away when he beat a rundown on the base paths and scored a run.
I did get to meet Robinson during that magical season. He was casually resting on the fence by the 1st base box seats, signing autographs, right near where our $3.50 seats were. The date was June 7th. (I had to look it up) When my turn arrived, I told him I hope you do what you did last night. I remember exactly what he said to me. I hope I don’t have to do it like that again.
I had no idea what he meant until in the New York Daily News, which I read religiously — sports and cartoons only, I learned a little inside baseball. I had watched the Dodgers game the previous night. The Dodgers were losing to Luis Arroyo of the St. Louis Cardinals by the score of 4-3. I remember Vin Scully telling us that it had been years since a lefty got a complete game victory in Ebbets Field.
In the bottom of the 9th, with the tying run on first, Manager Walter Alston had ordered Robinson to bunt. Robinson had other ideas. The two did not get along I found out much later. The hated Walter O’Malley had hired Alston while Robinson owed his career to the departed Branch Rickey. Rickey and O’Malley were bitter rivals and their rift extended to Robinson and Alston. After two feeble attempts to lay down a bunt, Robinson smacked an Arroyo pitch over the leftfield wall for what we would call now, a walk-off 5-4 win. After the game, Alston fined Robinson $50 for not bunting.
I don’t remember what Robinson did against the Reds that afternoon but I do remember that Johnny Podres, who was destined to win two gamers in that World Series, beat Cincinnati 4-0, on a five-hitter.
I came across that June 7th autograph years later and promptly pitched it. I think it was around the time after Jackie’s career was long over that he started to exert his anger and hostility toward major league baseball and anyone else around him for what they did to him and other black athletes. The historical truth of course is that blacks had a grievance even then I thought it was a dead horse that they kept on beating for years after. For anyone that follows the Obama administration, that dead horse still has plenty of post-mortem life.
In my defense, I was just a teenager with no political interests. I liked to see the game, played by great athletes. I really didn’t care if they were black or white. While Jackie’s race was hard to ignore, as long as he could still run and hit then I felt he should be playing. What has emerged over the years since his premature death from the complication of diabetes and heart problems in 1972, is an untenable situation that has gotten even worse. Affirmative action quotas, and the race card which have infected the regular business community, are likened to a Damoclean sword that still hangs over baseball’s perennially exposed neck.
Black players were always in demand, thanks to Mays and Robinson and later Brock. But then the politicians deemed that there were not enough black pitchers and managers. Of course Jackie’s entry into the baseball Hall of Fame was swift. With that I have no argument. Fortunately baseball’s first black player since 1884 was worthy of the honor. But then someone realized that the percentage of black players had declined perceptibly as the new millennium approached. The return of Jim Crow discrimination?
No, just the influx of hundreds of better Hispanic athletes, many of who could be categorized as black. Then major league baseball got the brilliant idea to retire Jackie’s #42. But hadn’t the LA Dodgers done that many years ago? MLB now wanted every team, even those that did not exist when Robinson was a player, to eliminate that number’s availability. The Yankees Mario Rivera was the last major league player to wear the now universally retired number in 2013.
I think Robinson would have been better served had new players been allowed to experience his number as their own.
And even worse, every year all teams play a game in which everyone is wearing the number 42. One cannot tell the players, even with a scorecard. What a ridiculous idea. And now the Latino players’ have had their feelings hurt. They want Major League Baseball to retire a Latino black ball player, Roberto Clemente’s #21, which he wore only for Pittsburgh.
Again politics has infected baseball as it does virtually everything else. This all takes away from the game between the lines when color is the last thing that should matter. I think that all the adulation heaped on Jackie Robinson’s baseball career has substituted a political correct aura that thoroughly obscures an honest measure of the man. It has provided the country with a Jackie Robinson hagiography that has put him on a par with Abraham Lincoln, which would be risible if it were not so serious.
I hate to see Robinson’s legacy being abused to foster more group identity politics. The one fact that seems lost on his acolytes is that without the support of Branch Rickey, Pee Wee Reese, Ralph Branca and other white players, Jackie Robinson would have undoubtedly suffered a nervous breakdown that first season and his cause would have been set back for a generation. What should be a gigantic cause for humanity has been corrupted into a political excuse for racial division.
This does a disservice, not only to Robinson’s honest memory, but also to the game and to the American people. Baseball was much more interesting before it became part of the political landscape. My pitching of his autograph was my puerile way of protesting what I unconsciously sensed as the politicization of my favorite sport.