In recent years, there was always a mixture of feelings on this day, at this remembrance. There was obvious pride in baseball taking the lead in integrating American society. There was always good reason to celebrate the man as well as the institution, to recall Jackie Robinson's dignity and courage.
But there was also more than a hint of regret and frustration. Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball's racial barrier in 1947. Years had passed, decades had past, a new century was upon us, and still, this society had such a long, long way to go to reach racial equality and social justice.
In 2009, we, as a people, still have a long way to go. But with the election of Barack Obama as president, we have, in this one extremely important instance, lived up to the ideals of equality expressed in our own Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ..."
That is one of the noblest concepts ever penned by human hands. And it is fitting that these words form the basis for mankind's greatest social experiment, our American republic.
Now, on this 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game in the Major Leagues, we don't have to look back with mixed emotions. We don't have to look at this bit of baseball history as a proud, but somewhat isolated incident. We can look back on this event as part of the long and difficult struggle for civil rights in this country that led to the day when Barack Obama, a one-man distillation of the American melting pot, could be elected to the highest office in the land.
It does not require particular party affiliation to see this connection. You do not have to agree with this president's policies to fully comprehend how important he is in the history of this nation.
And his election makes more important the work of all those who fought for equality, for freedom, for justice, from the time of the abolitionists to the 2008 presidential election. And on that list was the man who changed society while he was changing baseball, No. 42, Jackie Robinson.
It was always important for baseball to remember Jackie Robinson, and not because the game was allowed to congratulate itself for an event that happened in an earlier era. It was always important to remember Jackie Robinson because, by the very act of taking the field in a Major League uniform, he opened up a new world of possibilities. And by his subsequent display of fortitude in the face of bigotry, he underscored the notion that in a society that claimed to be the universal home for equality, justice should triumph. He was important as both symbol and reality.
It may be a long way from Ebbets Field to the White House, but the road to equality does not necessarily follow a straight line. Many civil rights pioneers from many fields of endeavor were required to bring about this fundamental change, this fundamental improvement, in American society. Baseball, thankfully, had one of those pioneers.
Now, more than ever, we celebrate baseball's contribution to this work, to this history, to the advancement of American society; No. 42, Jackie Robinson.