A look back at Jackie
Images from the life of the major leagues' first black baseball player and civil rights activist.
After all, Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of the most significant event in all of sports — the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Sixty years ago Sunday, Robinson played his first game in the bigs.
I don’t have to remind anyone that he went through hell, partly because by now most people who are aware of sports and aware of the name Jackie Robinson know his story, and partly because few alive in America today can really understand what that daily ugliness in the spotlight was like.
I certainly don’t pretend to know, although I can try and imagine what it must have been like to be black in 1947 in a lily white sport steeped in prejudice and in a society that had abolished slavery only 82 years prior. The level of ignorance and hatred that brings about such conditions is almost too perverse to fathom.
Jackie Robinson was a pioneer, and he eventually won over many detractors with his dignity, his courage and his playing ability, although many still remain to this day. In the most remote crannies of our current existence, there are still racist nut jobs with access to e-mail who will rant about the attention being paid to this anniversary, proving that quite often societies advance at a quicker pace than many of the human beings in them.
For now, we will wish upon them the understanding and compassion inherent in more enlightened individuals, and we also hope their computers crash.
But if Jackie Robinson were alive today, would he approve?
One of the most often cited statistics surrounding the anniversary is the one illustrating the number of African-Americans presently playing in the majors. The number hovers around seven or eight percent, depending on the moment.
And yet, 60 years later, less than 10 percent of major league ballplayers are African-American.
I think Jackie Robinson would be disappointed. But I also think he’d look around and realize that that number doesn’t tell the whole story. He’d understand that his impact went beyond baseball.
Jackie Robinson was a lot of things, athlete being just one. And baseball was just one of the areas in athletics in which he excelled. As a high school kid in Pasadena, he not only starred in baseball but also in football, basketball, track and tennis.
If he had been a professional athlete in Los Angeles today, for example, he’d probably be the kind of guy to play for the Dodgers, but take in a Lakers or Clippers game, a college football game involving UCLA or USC, and just about any other sporting event he could attend in his spare time. He’d be the star of one sport sitting in the seats at an event involving another sport that Jim Gray interviews.
What the Jackie Robinson of 1947 would notice today is that, because of his efforts, opportunities exist for African-Americans in all sports.
The percentage of black baseball players might be alarmingly low, but it could be because many young black athletes are finding more satisfaction in the NBA and NFL. Remember, the world changed after Jackie Robinson. Soon Larry Doby would become the first black to play in the American League, also in 1947. Earl Lloyd would become the first African-American to play in an NBA game, in 1950. Several blacks played pro football before and after World War II in various organizations, so it’s not so easy to identify a single trailblazer, but Wally Triplett was considered the first African-American draftee to play in the NFL, in 1949.
JACKIE ROBINSON, 60 YEARS LATER
Brooklyn Dodger second baseman broke color line on April 15, 1947
Video: Celebrating Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson, 60 years later
April 13: Sixty years ago this weekend, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues. Keith Olbermann talks with Ed Silverman, who covered Robinson’s debut.