Saturday, April 15, 2017

Jackie Robinson's Impact Went Beyond Baseball

This is a noteworthy anniversary in the history of American professional sports. It is the 70th anniversary of the day that Jackie Robinson obliterated the color barrier in major league baseball.

Of course, it wasn't obliterated right away. Social change always takes time. But it got started on this day.

Robinson broke the color barrier long before I was born. I grew up aware of the segregation that continued to exist in my hometown until I was well into my elementary school years but unaware that professional sports had ever been segregated. It took a remarkable person to make it possible for blacks to play in integrated professional leagues — and Robinson was a special person in many respects. There may not have been a better choice to challenge the status quo in 1947.

USA Today honors Robinson's memory today by listing his five greatest achievements.

To no one's surprise, becoming the first black man to play major league baseball on April 15, 1947 is ranked as his greatest achievement of all — and that is surely what he will be remembered for by generations to come. The other four achievements were from his major league career — after the catcalls had ended and the resistance had receded.

But his greatest achievement may have come off the baseball field — before he made history with the Brooklyn Dodgers — when he demonstrated that he had what it took to withstand what he would have to face.

During World War II while stationed at Ford Hood, Texas, Robinson stared down the U.S. military and its pre–desegregation institutionalized racism. He faced a court–martial over an incident on an Army bus.

The Army had commissioned an unsegregated bus line, but the driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Robinson would not do so, and the driver contact the military police when the bus reached the end of the line.

The court–martial had its roots in racist questioning of Robinson following the incident, not because of the incident itself. When Robinson proved his case in court, he was unanimously acquitted a nine–officer all–white panel.

It was during the period of his court–martial that Robinson demonstrated the qualities that served the civil rights movement so well in the years ahead. He was able to remain nonviolent in the face of virtually daily rough treatment by other teams, clearly taking a page from Gandhi's playbook in India and lending inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Baseball has found many ways to celebrate Robinson's memory. Of course, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility.

In 1987, 40 years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the American and National leagues renamed their Rookie of the Year awards renamed the "Jackie Robinson Award." Robinson won the award following his rookie season of 1947 — at a time when the award covered both leagues.

On the 50th anniversary of the bashing of the color barrier, Robinson's No. 42 was retired by all major league clubs. Only one other athlete has been so honored by his sport — hockey's Wayne Gretzky.

"Jackie Robinson Day" is observed every year now on the anniversary, and every player on every major league team wears No. 42 in tribute to Robinson.

It is hard to imagine what America would look like today if Robinson had not broken baseball's color barrier 70 years ago today.

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