Shine on, #42…shine on

It was on this day forty years ago that a man’s suffering and sacrifice came to an end, that he stopped feeling forced to be more than he was–but always so much more than he could have been. We are all better for that.

Today–October 24, 1972–Jack Roosevelt Robinson passed away. He was only 53. The constant daily strain of hatred, bigotry and threats on his life by those who saw only the color of his skin and not his compassion, courage and talent finally proved to be too much for his diabetes-afflicted heart (the disease had also cost him most of his sight), and it failed him on that day.

It is impossible to imagine or envision a modern-day game of baseball without his efforts.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson put on a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and took his courage and dignity along with him to his position as first baseman in his first major league baseball game, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, NY. He was the very first non-white athlete since 1880 to do so.

Two things happened that day. First, being an African-American, he “broke the color barrier”…not only in major league baseball but also, as it happened, for all sports. He integrated the game of baseball.

Secondly…he showed firsthand just how ugly racism, hatred and bigotry both are and can be. He was the lightning rod…each night he received numerous death threats; hearing fans screaming racial epithets at him, calling him names, provoking him to take action, to yell back, even to acknowledge them and their ignorance and hatred. He did none of those things. Instead, he played the game and played it very well–that was his revenge.

Teammates were fearful that they would suffer as well from the awful hatred and loathing he experienced, that they might be accidentally injured or even shot because of his presence. Some of them–frankly–had the same racist feelings as the fans. It became so bad that Dodgers manager Leo Durocher finally addressed the team:

“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a[n] [expletive] zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

More on his treatment by other players:

Robinson received significant encouragement from several major league players. Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese once came to Robinson’s defense with the famous line, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” In 1948, Reese put his arm around Robinson in response to fans who shouted racial slurs at Robinson before a game in Cincinnati. A statue by sculptor William Behrends, unveiled at KeySpan Park on November 1, 2005, commemorates this event by representing Reese with his arm around Robinson.Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg, who had to deal with racial epithets during his career, also encouraged Robinson. After colliding with Robinson at first base on one occasion, Greenberg whispered a few words into Robinson’s ear, which Robinson later characterized as “words of encouragement.” Greenberg had advised him that the best way to combat the slurs from the opposing players was to beat them on the field.

In addition, his high example of good character played a significant role in advancing the US Civil Rights movement.

No player can ever wear 42 as their daily uniform number; it has been permanently retired. His number is found on every outfield wall on every major league baseball stadium in America. The day he started his first major league game–April 15–has been designated “Jackie Robinson Day”. On this day all players are invited to wear #42 as a tribute.

There is so much that each of us, as well as athletes everywhere, can learn and benefit from his years of sacrifice: that the measure of a man is not the color of his skin…that some men seek greatness, and in others it seeks them. That a man with great courage stands tall and casts a shadow that is longer than any length of physical measure, but one which extends through time as well.

He was a shining example to all of us, and always will be. Shine on, Jackie Robinson…shine on.

(There is much more on his life, history and achievements here.)

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