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Special man needed to break barrier

Special man needed to break barrier

Historian Jules Tygiel called it "Baseball's Great Experiment," and black sportswriters Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith trumpeted the event as "historic" and a move toward full equality.

Critics, however, said a lot of things, none of them good. They questioned aloud the reasons for integrating baseball.

To them, baseball's great experiment risked destroying the game. They asked: How can white men play alongside black men?

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Critics found their answer soon enough.

On this day 60 years ago, Jackie Robinson walked into Ebbets Field with Pee Wee Reese, Eddie Stanky and 22 other white teammates as a Brooklyn Dodger. Robinson's step into what had been a lily-white world was every bit the giant step for mankind that Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon was.

Few events in the first half of the 20th century carried more social significance than Robinson's breaking baseball's color barrier. Still fewer would have threatened to slow the efforts toward integration more quickly had this great experiment failed.

So it took a special man, a trailblazer, to ensure the experiment succeeded. Jackie Robinson was that man.

Through the lens of hindsight, no ballplayer from the Negro Leagues was a better choice than Robinson. College educated, he had the temperament and the fortitude to carry out this experiment. Also, he didn't have the off-the-field baggage that other stars of black baseball carried on their backs like an overstuffed footlocker.

Robinson didn't have a woman in every town. He was a one-woman man, and the woman in his life, Rachel Isum, became his partner for life.

On the road, he didn't throw his money around in after-hour joints like confetti.

Baseball historians like Tygiel won't dispute that other men in the Negro Leagues were superior ballplayers. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Monte Irvin and Sam Jethro had built flashier resumes. Yet these men probably didn't have the right stuff to make them pioneers.

And what Branch Rickey looked for when he committed to integrating baseball was a man with a pioneer's spirit. Rickey didn't need a Malcolm X or an H. Rap Brown, militants who might address each injustice with a roundhouse right. Rickey needed a man who understood the political side of integration, a man who realized that nonviolence on the field would lead to progress off the field.

Not just any black man could fill Rickey's job description. Not a lot of black men would want to fill it either -- not on these terms.

Yet the integration of baseball was bigger than what it seemed on its face. A whole movement rested on the success [or failure] of Robinson.

If he fails, integration finds itself on a long, twisting road to Brown vs. The Board of Education, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of '54. The legal doctrine of "separate but equal," the sibling of Jim Crow laws, might have reigned deep into the 1960s.

As empty-headed as that doctrine was, it reflected a nation that felt uncomfortable with the mixing of the races. Whites had drawn the color line during Reconstruction, and it widened through the decades. To erase that color line, America needed a special man.

Most people prefer not to think what might have happened in America had Rickey or some other Major League executive tried to integrate the Majors in the late 1930's or early '40s and picked a hothead like Oscar Charleston or a man about town like Paige.

That's not a thought that historians like Tygiel need dwell on, though. They know that Rickey handpicked his choice. He didn't pick Charleston or Paige. Neither man properly understood a pioneer's duty.

But Jackie Robinson, a man of grace, of tolerance and of talent, did. He was a man unafraid to go where there were no paths; he was a man unafraid to leave his footprints on a virgin trail.

It is that trail that America and baseball fans should remember today -- 60 years to the day that Robinson blazed it.

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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