Lost in History, Vol. 26

by |
04/11/2007 12:00 AM |

The fact that New York City, the world capital of cosmopolitan business, culture, media and fashion is such a sports-wacky city still boggles our mind. Don’t sports belong to the South and Midwest? Aren’t they the pastime of smaller urban, suburban and exurban areas with nothing else to do?  What’s more, as a youngun’ not even alive when Jackie Robinson passed on to the great Second Base in the sky in 1972, are we allowed to cheer and reminisce about his Major League debut, 60 years ago yesterday, April 15th? Especially as it took place in our hometown, the superlative borough of Brooklyn? You better damn believe we are entitled to celebrate that brilliant man. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have a column this week.

As even a non-sports fan in a surprisingly sports-zany city can attest to, it is a source of pride that Jackie Robinson was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers right on Court Street, facing Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn. The space today is (what else, but) aCommerce Bank, but back in 1945, when Robinson first signed his contract. was a media outlet for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson had always been a superstar, and one accustomed to speaking his mind when he was involved in racial injustice. Not only was Robinson the first student at UCLA to earn four letters – one each in baseball, basketball, football and track — but he was almost court-martialed during World War Two when he refused to play on Texas’ Fort Hood football team. The school forced Robinson to stand at the back of the Army bus, along with the other colored students (per Encyclopedia of New York City), and this is what got the sweet-tempered mean hitter into hot water.

Following the war, Robinson played in the Negro League for the Kansas City
Monarchs, and then the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm team, the. Dodger president Branch Rickey was a savvy PR manager and understood the one-small-step-for-black-men, one-giant-leap-for-African-Americans mentality that surrounded his move to integrate baseball. And it was only in a city like Brooklyn where a black athlete like Jackie Robinson could fearlessly and fearfully join his fellow white players, like Pee-Wee Reese, Pete Reiser and Johnny Podres. When Robinson took to the field on April 15th, wearing number 42 (Douglas Adams was right!), there were 26,623 fans in the stands, more than half were black. (Per Brooklyn! An Illustrated History)

Robinson wasn’t the first major step towards integration for society in general — in 1941 the Government awarded African-Americans defense jobs, and President Truman ordered the military desegregated in 1948. What’s more, the ethnic makeup of northern cities had been changing over the past few decades, so the old-school segregationists couldn’t ignore the movement of people of color for much longer. Although Robinson was a phenomenon in the sport, neither the entire game nor its individual players welcomed him. Unruly, narrow-minded fans hurled insults and trash. Vicious players from opposing teams tried to dig their cleats into his shins as they rounded second. However, modern society itself was thrilled with Jackie. He starred on comic books, pop magazines, newspapers, ads, even played himself in a movie, The Jackie Robinson Story, alongside Ruby Dee as his wife Rachel.

To celebrate the historic marking of the end of one era and the beginning of another, last night’s games across the country had players donning number 42. Some entire teams are proudly displaying 42, including the Astros, the Brewers, the Pirates, and of course, the LA Dodgers. Up in the Bronx, Mariano Rivera and Robinson Cano of the Yankees are both fronting 42 – Rivera is the last active player wearing it (the number was retired a decade ago) and Cano is named for the baseball great. Although the game certainly has changed, with steroids and super-stadiums, with more luxury boxes and less nosebleed bleachers; the intrinsic sense of patriotism and history in that signing 60 years ago is a true moment to celebrate. So, our caps are off to Jackie Robinson.