With the inauguration of America's first African-American president, we are naturally moved to contemplate other, earlier pioneers in the struggle for civil rights, for true equality. You can choose your own from a long and noble list, but for the purposes of this site, this sport, this discussion, the primary pioneer was and always will be Jackie Robinson.
Robinson paved the way for generations of African-American ballplayers to come, but his influence went well beyond even that accomplishment.
Think about the time of his arrival in the big leagues, 1947. This was before American public schools were desegregated. This was before American armed services were desegregated. Even the Voting Rights Act was nearly two decades away.
Baseball then played a larger role in American society than it does today, simply because the competition was a lot smaller. Professional football was a marginal attraction compared to what it would become. Professional basketball was merely in its formative phase. Professional hockey, at the highest level, was played in only six North American cities.
Baseball was truly the national pastime. So when Robinson arrived with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the impact was felt well outside the white lines. This was a major social shift. This was, in fact, real progress not just in baseball, but in the cause of racial justice for an entire society.
Jackie Robinson suffered the slings and arrows, the slurs and insults, with a kind of dignity that few other mortals could muster. His personal courage, in the face of a torrent of hostility, made an integrated baseball possible.
And that, in turn, moved us all toward a more integrated America. Baseball has long been taking bows for being ahead of the social curve in 1947. Of course, before then, it was as white-only as the next major operator in American society.
When people speak of attaching asterisks to various baseball records, how about this notion: an asterisk for everything before 1947, because the game was so much less in every way, before the African-American players, before the Latin American players, before the Asian players -- all of whom make this game better than it ever could have been before 1947.
Robinson represented not just a major change in America's game, but a turning point in American society. He was the embodiment of the hope for further change, of the possibility of further change.
Now, nearly 62 years later, that change has occurred at the highest level, the American presidency. Obama's ascension to the leadership of our American republic may be the single largest development in racial relations on this continent since the right side won the Civil War and slavery was abolished.
But in the painfully long time between then and now, there had to be people who moved the cause of justice forward regardless of the personal cost. In the context of baseball, the prime mover was Robinson.
Perhaps it cannot be said that Robinson led directly to Obama, because, in these human matters, progress isn't always linear or direct or rapid or convenient, and the White House is a different kind of destination than Ebbets Field. But it can be said that every one of the 1,382 games Robinson played in the Major Leagues represented a step toward equality, a step toward a day when America would seem to be more inclusive than exclusive. Now, Jan. 20, 2009, would seem to be a day of that kind.