Sunday, April 15, 2012

Debating Jackie Robinson Day

Writing this post is dangerous as Jackie Robinson is an icon of righting a long-held wrong. And there is full acknowledgement here of Robinson's place in history. Martin Luther King himself spoke of Robinson's historical place in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no doubt that Robinson's courage and the way he handled himself as the first African American in modern baseball. Every tribute that has been thrown towards the man and his actions are earned. The only question asked here is when is enough, enough?

If Major League Baseball does this every season and every player wears Number 42 one day every year, will we get immune to the meaning behind the event? Will it become passe? And just like Martin Luther King became the American symbol for the tragedy millions of American blacks who fought and suffered, doesn't focusing on just one man take our vision away from everyone else? King did not march alone. There were many, many other brave Americans that marched right along with him. They were beaten too. They were jailed too. Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. But he wasn't alone.

Shouldn't we have a Larry Doby Day? Doby was the pioneer in the American League. The year was also 1947. Doby did not have it any easier. His role was no less painful. Would not it be fitting for all of baseball to wear Number 14 for a day? Should not umpires have an Emmett Ashford Day? Or is this like Columbus Day where we will always remember one adventurer and not Henry Hudson and Juan Ponce De Leon?

Making this annual tribute does not feel right to this observer. It almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong. Robinson's number is already retired around baseball by edict. He is in the Hall of Fame. There is no way his place in history will be forgotten. What he did should be taught for generations to our school children. But we do not do this for any other American. Do we? Baseball players are not asked to wear stove hat baseball caps on Lincoln's birthday. Baseball does not acknowledge other important members of history in this way.

This writer understands that baseball has a problem. Not enough of our African Americans are drawn to baseball as a primary sport. Basketball and Football are much more glamorous to our young people. There are not enough African American baseball players in the sport, in the dugouts and in the front offices. Having this celebration every season does give such young people a day to think about. But it seems that young people are like most young people. They need current heroes to emulate, not someone who died a long time ago. Why not broaden the spectrum and make the annual celebration an African American celebration. Change it up a bit.

There is a fear in this corner that doing this the same way every year becomes mundane and at the same time  gives the appearance of forcing the event down every baseball fan's throat. If any good meal is overcooked, it becomes inedible. Are we going to be doing this the same way for the next fifty years? It seems time to broaden the scope of our vision. Nobody is going to forget Jackie Robinson. Nobody is going to lessen his place in history if we do so. The Number 42 hangs in every ballpark. We don't need a day every season where every player wears it.


Zennie Abraham said...

I respectfully disagree. There will be a time when you and I are gone; the ones after us need to be reminded. You can't sweep history under the rug, so better not to try.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Fair enough comment, Zennie. Your position is noted though I thought I was clear that history should never be swept under the rug.

Bill Miller said...

William, I love you, man, but I couldn't disagree more. To start with, every great leader, whether we are talking about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, MLK, or Jackie Robinson, is an icon representing a particular historical time and place. We choose to memorialize them because it is clear that without their particular contribution in the right place at the right time, events would have played out very differently. Whether some people get tired of hearing about them or not is no reason to cease honoring them. Nor is it quite enough to honor a random person (black or white) to "change things up," because that more than anything would only trivialize the reason for the memorial in the first place. Men (and women) who demonstrate not only bravery, but who have the gift of leadership, are not just like the rest of us. Who, exactly, do you think is tired of having Jackie's legacy "forced down their throat?" Are these people also tired of having the annual celebration of the 4th of July shoved down their throat, or are we only comfortable with holidays that allow white people to feel good about themselves?
Larry Doby, who I'm sure was a brave man, only had 32 official at bats, and played the field only enough to record 15 total chances in '47, so, for all intents and purposes, Jackie truly was alone in breaking the color barrier in '47. Also, when you say that it, "almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong," well, yes, isn't that exactly the point? And shouldn't it be? It was MLB, not some distant, alien force that created the color barrier in the first place, so an annual public penance seems appropriate to me. Finally, when you argue that no one will forget Jackie, so, in effect, it is safe to move on, I have to ask you, how many Americans have already forgotten about (or have never even heard of) Winston Churchill, The Triangle Factory Fire, the Johnstown Flood, Woodie Guthrie, Jack Johnson (the black heavyweight boxer), Jesse Owens, and Moses Fleetwood Walker? The thing is, Americans are really, really good at forgetting important people and events. That's why we have T.V., Hollywood, and Glenn Beck to shove propaganda down our collective throats.
Honoring Jackie once per year is a very small price to pay to hold ourselves as a society even minimally accountable to one another.
Over and out, dude.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Okay, Bill and Zennie. You have won the day. This Fan standing down.

Dan McCloskey said...

Excellent comment, Bill. I was mostly agree with William's thoughts (which, of course, we know were well intentioned and not meant to sweep anything under the rug) until I read what you had to say.

To William's point, though, I think local celebrations of Larry Doby (in Cleveland), Hank Thompson (in St. Louis or Baltimore), etc. could enhance Jackie Robinson Day.

But, of course, there is and will always be only one Jackie Robinson.

Thomas Slocum said...

Interesting as I had some of the same thoughts yesterday watching a couple of network/cable games. Of course the question is how does MLB extricate itself from this now annual event? Wait until Rachel Robinson dies?

No Caucasion-American (if there is such a term) can possibly appreciate what Jackie Robinson (and Larry Doby, among others) went through in the late 1940's as they, for all time, broke the MLB color barrier. However we can all admire the class Robinson (and others) displayed while doing it and wonder if we'd have the same stuff (mostly, we would not).

As was in USA Today (today), the percentage of African-American MLB players is currently the lowest it's been since 1959. Perhaps MLB, including its players, might dramatically increase its contributions to inner cit and other programs that are designed to enhance the exposure to baseball among young African Americans.

Better yet, orient those contributions to all under-privileged children regardless of their talents (and their race). Professional sports, after all, is for most simply a chimera that will simply spit most out without mercy or fanfare.