71 years later, Robinson can teach us a lot
Happy Jackie Robinson Day.
Seventy-one years ago, Robinson was in the lineup, batting second, on Opening Day in a 5-3 Brooklyn Dodgers’ win over the Boston Braves in front of 26,623 fans — not a sellout — at Ebbets Field. Robinson went 0-for-3, but scored a run.
And absolutely everything changed with that otherwise ordinary statistical line.
Baseball was The Sport of our country in 1947 — the NBA wasn’t even called the NBA then; the NFL (10 teams) would not really break into national consciousness until 1958, and the NHL was still in its Original Six form.
While we want sports to be a refuge from everyday life — and in the current climate, wish that baseball, football, basketball, whatever the sport, to be devoid of politics, Robinson’s mere presence in the lineup and in a Dodger uniform for the next 10 years was a political and cultural statement — without Jackie saying a word —that roared through the United States.
Having an African-American in the national pastime — and the wave that followed— is a landmark moment in the Civil Rights Movement, along with African-Americans serving in World War II — if blacks can die for the country, shouldn’t they have equal rights in their country? — and the emergence of leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose death 50 years ago the country observed earlier this month.
The initial result of this confluence — because America is perpetually a work in progress — was inherently good. Brown vs. Board of Education (of Topeka, Kansas) in 1954 legally desegregated public schools, though enforcement took time to filter down to local districts north and south.
Among many things, Dr. King leads a nonviolent protest movement to desegregate lunch counters and buses throughout the south. (Ironically, Robinson refused to sit in the back of a bus while in the military during World War II, but was acquitted in a court-martial.) White and blacks together protest for equality and the 1964 and 1965 Voting Rights Acts become law, ensuring some of the very overdue promises of the Reconstruction Amendments (Nos. 13-15).
Through Jackie Robinson and others, sports played a role and making the United States a better place. So why does it drive some people batty when an athlete makes a political statement?
Sports are America
Whether it’s right or not or whether we like it or not, sports plays an oversized role in American life. Would the world be a better place if we celebrated a student majoring in chemistry or computer science more than a team winning the Super Bowl? Sure.
But that isn’t the reality of our world (and Freud still his a job. Yipee.) We gather at stadiums and arenas throughout the country for everything from kids soccer to the NBA Playoffs. And we watch incessantly on television.
And sports are a reflection of America: big, brassy and diverse. These sports are played in modern cathedrals that put the ancient ones to shame, and regardless of gender, race, orientation or whatever category you want, we play and watch.
Sports is everything that is good about our country — the longtime loser wins, like the Cubs in 2016 or the 2004 Red Sox (ahem, the 2010, 2012 and 2014 Giants). We love the upset — the Eagles had none chance against the Patriots during the Super Bowl, especially with Nick Foles, right? ‘Miracle on Ice,’ anyone?
We love greatness, Michael, Magic. The Babe and, yes, Jackie, so much so we don’t need last names for them. And it’s fun to see the average Joe win — how did Danny Willett win the Masters?
Like America, sports are extraordinary. So far, the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is hitting and pitching like Ruth.
On the flip side of the coin, sports have the divide of rich and poor that is an issue in our country. The Yankees will win more games this season than the Marlins, based on the dollar alone. On a professional level and arguably college as well, we don’t care about women’s sports as much as we do their male counterparts. In college sports, the big schools are going to win.
When his 25th anniversary of baseball integration was celebrated at the 1972 World Series, Robinson said famously, “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Robinson died nine days after saying that, and we still do not have enough minorities in management positions on the field or in the front office. And America is still struggling with race.
Disagreement is not hate
And let’s be clear, by talking about sports’/America’s drawbacks, I am not hating on America. One of the many reasons the United States is great is that criticism is allowed, enshrined in law.
But this seems to be the knee-jerk reaction — “You hate America. Shut up.” — of some fans when an athlete opens his or her mouth to express a political thought.
What’s setting these people off?
• Is it because they make however many millions, and should just shut their mouths? Of course, there’s some jealousy there. I’d like to make more money. I’d bet we all would. The good news for a majority of us is that money is not a precursor for speech. The person earning minimum wage has the same right to speech as the athlete earning $20 million.
• Is it because athletes have a bigger platform for their opinions than you? Perhaps, we are getting warmer. That said, the average Joe/Jane has more access than ever to public platforms through technology. You can tweet, email, Facebook (is that a verb?), Snapchat and so on.
• Is it because you disagree with what they say? Ding, ding, ding, ding. That’s life, people. America’s a diverse place with diverse opinions. Sad day for you. You’re entitled to your opinions and others theirs.
What is so controversial about that? Different opinions are as American as baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet, as the ad used to say.
Disagreement led to the birth of this country and has been a theme ever since, including the once zany thought of letting an African-American play baseball back in 1947.
Happy Jackie Robinson Day.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.