Thursday, April 15, 2010

Number 42

Allow me to take a moment's respite from my regularly scheduled racist rantings to draw your attention to the calendar. Yes, yes, it's tax day--but something happened 63 years ago today that bears remembering.

Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

When I do corporate sales training and we talk about personal responsibility I always use Ron Artest and Jackie Robinson as my examples of opposite ends of the personal-responsibility spectrum.

I don't want to waste time on Artest; he's an NBA player who punched a fan and incited a riot in the Palace in Auburn Hills during a game between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons in 2004. Years later I saw an interview with Artest and he was still taking no responsibility for what happened (a fan tossed some beer at him; the fan that he beat in the stands was NOT the one who threw the plastic bottle, but whatever...).

Jackie Robinson was the anti-Artest. When Branch Rickey presented his plan to Robinson, he warned him that if he reacted to anything--any of the threats or epithets or even acts of violence--that he was going to encounter as he set out on the quest to integrate baseball, he would set back the cause by a decade.

Rickey knew what he was doing. Robinson was a great athlete and a great baseball player, but there were arguably better players Rickey could have drafted. He was looking for something more than just a great player, though. He needed a man who could play outstanding baseball and exhibit an emotional strength and stoicism that are difficult to fathom. He found the right man in Robinson.

Here's a part of the Wikipedia entry about Jackie Robinson:

...[S]ix days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues. With Eddie Stanky entrenched at second base for the Dodgers, Robinson played his initial major league season as a first baseman. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major league debut at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, including more than 14,000 black patrons. Although he failed to get a base hit, the Dodgers won 5–3. Robinson became the first player since the 1880s to openly break the major league baseball color line. Black fans began flocking to see the Dodgers when they came to town, abandoning their Negro league teams.

Robinson's promotion met a generally positive, although mixed, reception among newspapers and white major league players. However, racial tension existed in the Dodger clubhouse. Some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when Dodgers management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, "I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' 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."

Robinson was also derided by opposing teams. Some, notably the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played. After the threat, National League President Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler let it be known that any striking players would be suspended. Robinson nonetheless became the target of rough physical play by opponents (particularly the Cardinals). At one time, he received a seven-inch gash in his leg. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies players called Robinson a "nigger" from their dugout and yelled that he should "go back to the cotton fields." Rickey later recalled that Phillies manager Ben Chapman "did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united thirty men."

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.

Robinson finished the season with 12 home runs, a league-leading 29 steals, a .297 batting average, a .427 slugging percentage, and 125 runs scored. His cumulative performance earned him the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award (separate National and American League Rookie of the Year honors were not awarded until 1949).

Robinson, unlike Artest, had real reasons to lash out or to react to the abuse he was dealt. The Wikipedia entry does not go into the threats that he received, the hotels that refused to allow him to stay with his teammates, and so many other things. Robinson would get angry--he was human, after all--but he never reacted in a way that would give his enemies ammunition. He knew that he was significant and that his actions would have an immediate and direct impact on the lives of many. He took personal responsibility for his actions. No "he made me do it" excuses from Jackie Robinson.

It's a lesson we all need to remember now and then.

More later...

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