The complex political legacy of Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson is known mainly for the fact that he was the first black baseball player in the major leagues. He was an anti-Communist and thus he was persuaded to speak against Paul Robeson before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, but he knew that he was being used as a pawn by the white power structure. While that appearance tarnished his image and resulted in him being called an Uncle Tom and an Oreo, largely forgotten is the fact that the rest of his life was devoted to advancing the cause of black athletes and breaking down color barriers and pushing for integration in every aspect of society. And his actions have reverberated down to this day.

As Howard Bryant says in his book The Heritage, Robinson modeled and explicitly fostered a sense of solidarity and informal mentoring among black players so that they could navigate the treacherous waters of white dominated professional sports, where one wrong move could see them ejected. Bryant calls him the godfather of the Heritage, picking up on Paul Robeson’s legacy.

Even though his short time as a professional athlete in favor of an entertainment career decoupled him in some ways from its lineage, Paul Robeson had poured the foundation. Jackie Robinson shaped it, and a heritage followed. Henry Aaron fought for integrated spring-training housing in Florida with the Milwaukee Braves and integrated seating at Fulton County Stadium when the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. In 1960, pitcher Jim “Mudcat” Grant once left the ballpark in protest after absorbing racial slurs from one of his teammates. In baseball, the Heritage did not only refer to black players being provocative on political issues but, thanks to the Robinson legacy, it also created a tradition of black players connecting as a brotherhood in sports, supporting each other in a game each knew only accepted them reluctantly. After Robinson, other black veteran players would mentor the younger ones, on the same and even opposing teams. When a black player would come to Atlanta, it was Henry Aaron’s responsibility to reach out, Ernie Banks’s in Chicago, Richie Allen’s in Philadelphia, Willie Mays’s in San Francisco, Jim “Junior” Gilliam’s in Los Angeles, and so on. Black players on opposing teams shared information about cities, which ones were hostile or more welcoming to blacks, which schools and neighborhoods were preferable, which managers and players were rednecks and which would give them a fair shake. And it was generational. At second base with the Dodgers, Jackie Robinson gave way to Junior Gilliam, and when the time came for a young Davey Lopes to enter the system, it was Junior Gilliam who took him under his wing, drove him around the city, showed him the game. “You have no idea what that meant to a young player,” Lopes said. “Invaluable. That’s the game.”

And there was another unspoken compact that, since 1947, has rarely been discussed and rarely violated: African Americans on opposing teams did not fight each other on the diamond, even in the case of bench clearing brawls. Take the Dodgers and Giants and their infamous brawl of 1965, when Giants pitcher Juan Marichal hit Los Angeles catcher Johnny Roseboro in the head with a bat, fracturing his skull. It was Willie Mays, the black Giants centerfielder who carried Roseboro, the black Dodgers catcher, off the field.

The Robinson influence on the baseball traditions of the Heritage led to a tightly knit network of African American players that would span generations, both leagues, and the entire country. “We had to take care of each other,” Dusty Baker said. There weren’t many of us. You knew the game didn’t always want you. You had to pass on what you knew, like, prepare the ones that were coming. That was your responsibility.” (p. 49,50)

Then of course there are those black athletes who wanted to have nothing to do with race issues at all, who saw themselves as colorless, who just wanted to collect their big paychecks and walk away. The biggest villains were O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods, though there are many others who were open about only wishing to take care of themselves or who were actively hostile to saying or doing anything that might be remotely construed as political. History has no shortage of people who are willing to ignore the sacrifices made by others that helped them to break barriers and succeed. Bryant is willing to name names.

Bryant has a story about how in 1997 the Jackie Robinson Foundation asked Woods, who had rocketed to fame following his record=breaking win at the Masters that year, to join Jackie’s widow in a celebration honoring the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson entering the major leagues. Woods demurred, citing an “overwhelming number of commitments to his sponsor Nike”. The foundation then contacted president Bill Clinton who called Woods and said that he would be willing to speak personally to the top people at Nike and was sure that he could get him out of any commitments. But again, Woods demurred and was ultimately absent. But what did Woods actually end up doing on that day? He was partying on a beach in Mexico with friends, cementing his most enduring image, that of being a self-centered jerk.

But Bryant says that there were others whose sense of camaraderie extended to include even young sports reporters like him, taking him under their wing when he was starting out and teaching him about the game and introducing him to others, because they knew that black reporters also had the odds against them.

They were carrying on the traditions of the Heritage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *