To understand Jackie Robinson’s legacy, just look around you. His impact is everywhere.
Today, we celebrate Jackie Robinson, and don’t think for a moment this is just about baseball. He represents baseball’s finest hour, but it was also Robinson’s vehicle to begin reshaping the world.
To understand his real impact, look around you. Our schools and restaurants, our stores and neighborhoods, they are different because of a movement that began with Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line 69 years ago.
Amid the death threats and insults and assorted humiliations, Robinson took the first steps toward forcing Americans to see the world differently than they’d ever seen it before. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson was a sit-in-er before sit-ins and a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
Robinson alone could not have ended racism, and he was under no illusion about ever doing that. Indeed, we’re still working on that part of the deal in this country. That said, Robinson’s impact on both his sport and his world are incalculable.
“It meant there were six-, seven- and eight-year-old boys who suddenly thought a black man was a hero,” President Obama told filmmaker Ken Burns in a new documentary on Robinson.
Baseball has ushered Robinson into the consciousness of an entire new generation of people in recent years with its annual celebration of his life. Thanks to the ceremonies and speeches and community outreach work, countless players, fans, club executives and others know more about him than they might otherwise have known.
In 1997, baseball ordered that Robinson’s No. 42 be retired throughout the sport. In 2009, every player began wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day thanks to a suggestion by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.
Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and daughter Sharon have become part of the fabric of baseball, and through them, the story, with all its ugliness, has gained two human faces, soft and sweet.
Jackie Robinson is such a compelling figure that we hunger to know more, that we want to understand the world in which he lived and how he maintained his dignity and grace through it all.
Three years ago, a movie, “42,” beautifully written and exquisitely acted, introduced Robinson to thousands of people, not just baseball fans, either. Now, Burns’ new documentary takes Robinson’s story to another level with news footage and accounts of historians, former teammates, etc.
Thanks to all these efforts, Robinson will live forever in our hearts and minds. We may never fully grasp all that he endured along the way. One of the highest tributes to Robinson’s legacy is that millions of Americans can’t come to terms with the hatred directed toward this man because of the color of his skin. His world, for all its imperfections, is nothing close to his world.
As the Burns documentary points out, 90 percent of the African Americans in this country were living in the Jim Crow South when Robinson was born in Georgia in 1919. That year, 21 blacks were lynched in Georgia alone, according to the documentary.
Robinson played his first professional game in the Negro Leagues in 1945 a few days after Franklin Roosevelt’s death. From the moment Branch Rickey approached him about playing for the Dodgers, Robinson understood the larger impact.
“He (Robinson) laid the foundation for America to see it’s black citizens at subjects and not just objects,” Obama tells Burns.
During 10 season with the Dodgers, Robinson played the game with an edge and an anger that became part of his greatness. He took some of the aggressiveness into his life after baseball as a forceful, relentless voice for change.
“He became one of the most powerful voices we had to extricate ourselves from the evil and the pain of (our) history,” actor Harry Belafonte tells Burns.
Robinson’s legacy, his ultimate legacy, is interspersed with all of that, with the baseball and the civil rights movement. By the time Robinson died in 1972 at the age of 53, he’d seen President Johnson signs laws that integrated schools and restaurants, enhanced voter protections and made the world a bit better.
Robinson knew the battle wasn’t over, that it might never be over. But his legacy was that he made an indelible impression on people and that he used his voice and his fame to make us a better nation and a better people.
That’s part of what we celebrate today. Baseball’s is proud of its role in all of this, that it embraced change and gave Robinson a platform. Most of all, we honor this man’s courage and suffering, his vision and his heart.