Pioneer's legacy worthy of recognition beyond being honored on the diamond
By Terence Moore
Just like that, with much help from a decades-old interview, something hit me like a line drive. When it comes to celebrating Jackie Robinson's legacy of dignity, courage and achievement, Major League Baseball has it exactly right, but the rest of the country has it all wrong.
The game of baseball treats Robinson like an American icon. That's because he is, and he always will be.
Courtesy of Robinson breaking the game's color barrier on April 15, 1947, every team in the Major Leagues uses that date each year to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. Among other things, all players, managers and coaches in both the National League and the American League spend the occasion wearing his No. 42 on their jersey. Even the umpires have that number on their shirts that day, and in case you didn't know, No. 42 is otherwise retired by every franchise.
But for the rest of the country, there is nothing for Robinson. Well, nothing beyond what baseball does. Thus this question involving the big picture: Why isn't Jackie Robinson Day celebrated as a national holiday?
It should be.
Which brings me to the revelation. I was listening this week to a radio interview between Robinson and former Major League player and baseball announcer Bud Blattner. After Blattner complimented Robinson for carrying himself well as an African-American enduring all kinds of hardships while integrating the game, Robinson said, "As an American, this meant an important step forward as far as I was concerned. I felt that it was finally the elimination of one of the bigger challenges that most Americans had to face.
"I felt really good as an American, much more so than as being the first Negro in organized baseball."
In sum, the operative word for Robinson during his interview with Blattner was "American," and it only made sense. From serving as a four-sport superstar at UCLA to becoming a United States military veteran to speaking out against injustice whenever he saw fit ... I mean, what Jack Roosevelt Robinson did before, during and after he trotted onto the field that spring day in Brooklyn 68 years ago was as red, white and blue as it gets.
"Yeah, because everybody obviously talks about the baseball side of things regarding Jackie Robinson, which is nothing to sneeze at by any means, but at the same time, he was on the front lines of the civil rights movement," said Curtis Granderson, the Mets' right fielder and leadoff hitter.
Actually, Granderson is more than that. He is one of baseball's most cerebral players. Granderson was chosen by then-Commissioner Bud Selig to serve as an ambassador to promote the game to other countries. He uses part of his endorsement money to buy baseball equipment for inner-city youth. Granderson also is an African-American who never wants folks to forget the contributions of the Negro Leagues. That's why he has spent his dozen seasons in the Major Leagues wearing his socks high to commemorate those players.
Those players included Robinson, who went from the Kansas City Monarchs to make American (there's that word again) history with the Dodgers. He famously endured physical and verbal jabs from fans, umpires, opposing players and even teammates. Despite it all, Robinson was prolific enough at the plate and in the field to make six All-Star teams, win the National League MVP Award, snatch two NL stolen-base titles and earn a spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The thing is, Robinson also was noteworthy on a national level beyond those baseball things, which is why Granderson added, "He was trying to get society moving toward integration before doing that type of thing was really acknowledged. He was up there with other African-American figures. The baseball side was just part of it, but nobody ever should forget he was in that battle for equality with a lot of other people."
Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the 1960s, Robinson accepted King's offer to speak at rallies in the South involving the civil rights movement, particularly in Robinson's native Georgia. Not only that, Robinson was ahead of his time in standing against segregation. More than a decade before Rosa Parks refused in 1955 to sit in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., Robinson did the same in rural Texas when he was in the Army. He was nearly court-martialed for his actions, but the charges later were changed to insubordination.
Even if you just stick with sports, Robinson's actions on and off the field had universal consequence. It began during his youth. He was arrested at Pasadena (Calif.) Junior College in the late 1930s for protesting what he thought was unfair treatment by the local police against one of his African-American teammates. He eventually transferred to UCLA, where he was among the first African-Americans to earn a letter for the Bruins, and he did so in four sports -- baseball, basketball, football and track.
Speaking of baseball, African-Americans players began appearing everywhere in the Major Leagues after Robinson opened the door with the Dodgers. Then there was his speech on national television before the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati that urged baseball to hire its first black manager.
Three years later, another African-American named Robinson (Frank) was chosen as player-manager of the Indians.
No wonder, Major League Baseball saw fit in 1997 to make Robinson's No. 42 the only number in the game that is universally retired. That was followed in 2004 by baseball creating Jackie Robinson Day.
Now it's time for a bigger Jackie Robinson Day.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.