© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 22, 2012
American novelist Robert Parker once said that "Baseball is the most important thing in life that doesn't matter," and I would tend to agree with that. On the one hand, of course, baseball is merely a game concerned with a small leather-bound ball being hurled sixty feet and six inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate, where a person with a wooden stick attempts to swat at it. But baseball is also a great many more things: it is big business, accounting for billions of dollars of television rights, ad sales, and stadium financing to name but a few. It is also often referred to as our Nation's pastime, and whether or not that remains true today, baseball is indelibly woven into the fabric of our country and our national identity. And it is also one of our biggest exports, the only uniquely American sport played all around the world.
Many people believe that it was around the time of World War II that baseball became America's national pastime. As our troops spread across the globe in an ever-growing military conflict, they brought their bats, balls and gloves with them. And as they were thrown together in units made up of men from all over the country, their common language, their easiest-shared experience, was baseball.
When the troops returned victoriously in 1945, the return to normalcy was not complete for many until they took in their first ballgame. But black veterans returned to a very different reality. After putting their lives on the line for their country, they were shocked to return to a nation still deeply segregated and plagued by racism at all levels of society, including Major League Baseball.
Although Baseball did not officially have a statute banning non-whites from playing in the league, it was well known that the commissioner, a retired Federal judge named Kenesaw Mountain Landis, would veto any move by a team wishing to add a black player.
Around this same time, a young man from Pasadena CA, freshly returned from the frontlines himself, was about to take a stand and begin a lifetime commitment to refusing to believe in the limitations imposed on him due to the color of his skin.
On July 6, 1944, Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, in civilian life known as Jackie Robinson, was riding a bus on his army base while sitting near a fellow officer's light-skinned wife. The driver told him to move to a seat farther back in the bus, but he refused. When he later got off at his stop, the bus driver was joined by the dispatcher in yelling at him. A crowd formed and military policemen arrived. The MPs took Robinson into the station. John Vernon of the National Archives tells what happened next:
"...when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp's assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had 'the nigger lieutenant' with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened 'to break in two' anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word." According to the official report, Robinson continued to show "disrespect" and received a court martial.
Robinson was incensed, and contacted the NAACP and black papers in the area. He also wrote to the War Department about this experience of discrimination. It ended up being the white press that picked up on the story, as Robinson was a well-known athlete from his days at UCLA. In his time at UCLA, Robinson won a national championship in track and field, two consecutive conference-scoring titles as a basketball player, and was an honorable mention All-American in football. He also played a little baseball.
At the court martial, Robinson's commanding officer heaped praise on him and his character. His army-appointed defense attorney showed that there were clear inconsistencies in the eyewitness accounts. His attorney also suggested that Robinson's assertiveness was a legitimate expression of resentment given the racially hostile environment. Ultimately, the court acquitted Robinson of all charges.
While what happened to him on that bus was not unique, the outcome of the conflict was. This was a full decade before Rosa Parks would refuse to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery AL, and blacks would win the right to sit where they chose.
This was not Jackie's only warm-up for what would become his defining act, when he would become Major League Baseball's first African American player in its modern history. As another story goes, while playing for a Negro League baseball team, one night his team bus had stopped to fill its two enormous fifty-gallon tanks at a gas station. When the players enquired about a restroom, they were told that the one they had was for whites only. As the driver began to pump the gas in resignation, Jackie covered the tank hole with his hand. "No way," he said. "No bathroom, no gas." Jackie knew how important that hundred gallons of gas would be, and he judged correctly that the owner couldn't afford to lose the sale. The team was granted use of the bathroom, and from then on, wherever the bus stopped, they repeated the same conditions: no bathroom, no gas. Jackie and his teammates had been activated.
In between Jackie's court-martial and the time he began playing in the Negro leagues, on November 25, 1944, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball died. He was quickly replaced as Commissioner by then United States Senator Happy Chandler. Almost immediately, the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a man by the name of Branch Rickey, decided to see if this change in leadership meant there was a new possibility to integrate baseball. After secretly meeting with Commissioner Chandler and getting the go-ahead, Rickey began to put into motion a plan he had been working on for years.
Now, any good talent evaluator, as Branch Rickey was, knew very well that there were many players in the Negro League that were more than good enough to play in the Major's. But he also knew that whoever was the first would have an unimaginably difficult experience, and so he needed someone who was not only good enough on the field of play, but was also mentally strong enough to put up with the abuse. One of the deals he had struck with Commissioner Chandler was that no matter what horrible taunts, gestures or attacks were leveled at the first black player, he must agree not to retaliate for three seasons. So they needed not only an exceptional ballplayer, but also someone with the wisdom and patience of a saint.
Enter Jackie Robinson.
Columnist George Will is quoted as saying that what Jackie Robinson was able to do in the face of one of the most difficult and important moments in American history was "one of the great achievements not only in the annals of sport, but of the human drama anywhere, anytime." It is hard, nearly impossible in today's climate to understand how big a deal this moment was for our country. Everyone wanted to know if he would succeed or fail, and so much seemed to be riding on this experiment. And all Jackie Robinson did amidst the kind of crushing media attention that was likewise ahead of its time, was rise above the horrible taunts, the racist diatribes, the death threats, the cold shoulder of his teammates and fellow players. As his wife said about his attitude towards all the horrible behavior aimed at him: "He had a higher goal, the mission was important, Jackie held himself together for a greater purpose than just baseball." And not only did he rise above all of that both on the field and off, he absolutely thrived as a ballplayer, literally changing the game not only by his mere presence, but by his style.
The biggest stylistic change Jackie Robinson brought to Major League Baseball was the art of base running. Up until this point, most people stayed relatively anchored to the base they had earned through their hit or walk. But not Jackie. As soon as Jackie got to first he began messing with the pitchers head, faking little moves to second, dancing around first, always moving and needing attention. And in whatever moment the pitcher gave him, in that instant when the attention was turned to the batter, bam, Jackie was off for second base. He even famously stole Home on several occasions. No one had ever seen anything like it in Major League Baseball before, and people loved it!
It was famously said about Ginger Rogers that she did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels. Well, the more I learn about Jackie Robinson, the more I think it is fair to say that Jackie Robinson did everything that Martin Luther King, Jr. would do a decade later, and also hit .300 and terrorized the base paths.
His incredible patience with the ignorance, racism and violence that he endured did as much for racial progress in our country as anything that came after and, without question, directly activated and inspired the actions of the next generation of civil rights activists.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he was "a legend and a symbol in his own time" and that he "challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration."Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said of Robinson that his "efforts were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America ... [His] accomplishments allowed black and white Americans to be more respectful and open to one another and more appreciative of everyone's abilities."
So yes, baseball is just a game. A game concerned with a small leather-bound ball being hurled sixty feet and six inches from the pitcher's mound to home plate, where a person with a wooden stick attempts to swat at it. But a game is supposed to be fair, and so was America. We use terms like 'level playing field' in our common language to metaphorically talk about fairness. The American dream is all about rising up from any circumstance to finding success in one's chosen field. But up until Jackie Robinson, baseball was not a fair sport, and of course, after him it still had a long way to go. But in that way it represented its country honestly, and it truly became America's pastime as it struggled through the same labor pains as our nation. What Jackie Robinson did mattered so much more than a final score, a World Series championship, or a lucrative contract. What Jackie Robinson did was show America a way forward. And for that reason, this child's game, the sport of baseball, mattered far more than it should.
I would like to conclude with the words of Jackie Robinson himself, who said, "A life is not important except for the impact it can have on others." Even though we cannot all be just like Jackie Robinson, we all can follow his incredible example and find important ways to impact the lives of others through ours.
May it be so. Ashe.
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