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A time to remember

Robinson's impact extended way beyond the ballpark

Posted: Friday April 13, 2007 11:30AM; Updated: Sunday April 15, 2007 12:09PM
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Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier on April 15, 1947, and went on to have a stellar, 10-year Hall of Fame career.
Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier on April 15, 1947, and went on to have a stellar, 10-year Hall of Fame career.
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This is not about baseball. Or, rather, it's about so much more than baseball. When Jackie Robinson took America by the collar 60 years ago and shook it for all it was worth, he did it on a baseball field, yes. But why he did it, how he did it, the era in which it took place -- and, of course, that he did it at all -- are infinitely more important than where it happened. Then and now, the act itself was much bigger than the stage. None of us should ever forget that.

Major League Baseball this weekend celebrates Robinson and that history-changing day 60 years ago when he desegregated the national pastime. The impact of Robinson's appearance in that game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, can't be overstated. It was a seminal moment in baseball history -- the first black man playing in the major leagues in the 20th century -- and it cleared the way for thousands of men of color that have played the game since Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers that day.

But, again, that was only part of it. And not the biggest part.

It's often said that baseball is a reflection of society, and in early 1947, that was undoubtedly true. The game, like the country, was just finding its peacetime rhythm after World War II. But in many parts of America, especially in the Jim Crow South, the country was still splintered in "separate but equal" parts -- clearly separate yet anything but equal. That was true of professional baseball, too, with the white major leagues and the less-than-equal Negro Leagues.

So Robinson breaking baseball's color line is more than a simple sports story. It's a story of a society -- American society -- during a critical juncture in its history. Robinson's courageous step wasn't simply about opening the doors to the Major Leagues. It was about opening the doors to America.

This wasn't about baseball reflecting society. This was about baseball showing America how it could be. How it should be.

"This is an explosive event. This is the moon landing for black America," says professor Chris Lamb, who wrote the book Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training. "And a lot of white America was saying 'Hey, what's the big story?' He captured the imagination of a lot of white America. They couldn't ignore it."

Robinson's stoic and heroic handling of the racism he faced as the major's first black ballplayer is legendary. Robinson got a quick taste of it in that first spring training with the Dodgers' minor-league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, a team that trained in segregated Daytona Beach, Fla. There, many teams canceled games against Robinson's Royals, figuring a player who couldn't play couldn't make a major-league team. One team, in DeLand, Fla., cited a problem with lights for calling off a game. A day game.

Robinson was forced to practice on a field in the black part of Daytona Beach, away from the main stadium. Threats were an everyday part of his existence. "He took on Jim Crow in Jim Crow's front yard," Lamb says. "This wasn't Ebbets Field. He went into the deep South, where black people who challenged desegregation were lynched."

When he got to the big leagues as the Dodgers' first baseman, the harassment continued. His Brooklyn teammate, Duke Snider, recalled some of the abuse that he saw Robinson endure. "A lot of runners would come down there and instead of stepping on the bag would step on his foot or his leg," Snider told XM Radio in a recent interview. "The obscenities from the stands and from the opposition's bench were radical. It was terrible. I would hear it and it would embarrass me."

Yet to place Robinson's experiences in a baseball-only context, to describe him as simply a baseball pioneer, is to miss the larger picture. Robinson signed his contract with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey in 1946 -- he was just 27 at the time -- and took his spot at first base in Ebbets Field in 1947.

That was nearly seven years before the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ruled segregation in public schools unconstitutional. It was almost a decade before the Little Rock Nine. It was almost 16 years before a preacher from Atlanta stood in front of hundreds of thousands of marchers in Washington, D.C., on one late August day and told them, "I have a dream!"

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