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40 CHRISTMASES LATER
Frank Deford
December 22, 1986
What began with Jackie Robinson is not yet done
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December 22, 1986

40 Christmases Later

What began with Jackie Robinson is not yet done

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It has been a Biblical 40 years since the time when sports was a white domain in this country.

At the close of that era, on Christmas morn of 1946, when Jackie Robinson woke up at his mother-in-law's house in Los Angeles, where he was staying the winter, he was still officially on the roster of the minor league Montreal Royals. But by then he knew his kismet. He knew that by the time the trees blossomed in Brooklyn, he would surely be promoted to the Dodgers and to distinction and to God knows what-all else.

Certainly, Robinson's patron, Branch Rickey, was making every effort to ensure that destiny would not be tricked with, and not until five days before the season opened did Rickey finally issue a brief statement that Brooklyn had purchased the contract of Jack Roosevelt Robinson. Only then, at last, the player played, and when Robinson stood in against Johnny Sain at Ebbets Field on April 15, tapping a grounder to third, something was advanced in America that could never be rewound.

Yet how far away it all seems now, how quaint—especially today in a land where the majority were not even born when Robinson made the Dodgers, and where, as well, everybody majors in business administration, and history is some arcane discipline, dealing with (of all things!) the past. Commissioner Peter Ueberroth felt obliged to recall Robinson the other day in a speech, lest he become "a forgotten moment."

And, no doubt, much of the reality of that benighted epoch has already been neatly forgotten with time. Who, for example, that did not live through those years would believe that when the Dodgers made their first road trip, to Philadelphia—an indisputably northern city, of brotherly love, to boot—the entire Brooklyn team was summarily turned away from its hotel because No. 42 was on the manifest? But so it was 40 years ago, and barely different from 40 years before that, when Rickey's Ohio Wesleyan University baseball team was denied registration at a hotel in South Bend, Ind., because a black player, Charles Thomas, was on the squad. Rickey never forgot the moment that followed, when Thomas, crying in anguish, pulled at his hands, like Lady Macbeth, as though he might somehow wring the blackness from them.

"It's no disgrace to be colored," said Bert Williams, the famous turn-of-the-century comedian, "but it's just so inconvenient." And, 40 years after Robinson made the lineup in Brooklyn, 20 years after Bill Russell became coach of the Boston Celtics, everybody can get into hotels and most everybody can even get to be mayor of Philadelphia, but it's still terribly inconvenient to be colored if, for example, you would like to be a race-car driver or a jockey or a coach in the NFL.

Robinson once allowed: "I really believe that... Branch Rickey did more for Negroes than any white man since Abraham Lincoln." But prejudice is such a spotty, uneven response. If it's possible to argue that sports brings us together, that when whites cheer for a black man on the field it makes it easier for them to accept blacks at church or on a bus, then it's just as possible to argue that sports makes a relative handful of blacks into municipal mascots, which, in turn, allows whites to put aside the more delicate tangles of brotherhood. It's convenient to be white, to root out loud for Calvin Peete or Daley Thompson, or Julius Erving and the 76ers, or Bill Cosby and the Huxtables; to compartmentalize one's hate and cosmeticize one's bias.

It is sadly instructive of how little, really, we live up to the homilies we love to recite at sports banquets, but 40 years after Pee Wee Reese, a young white man from Kentucky, made the noble public effort of putting his arm around the beleaguered Robinson, there still isn't all that much fraternization away from the arena by teammates of different races. This is not to say, though, that our athletes are any more deficient in fellowship than anyone else, for obviously in society the neighborhood must change before the locker room does. When Rickey's family urged him to abandon the burden of leadership in opening up baseball, he refused to back off, instead commending to them Alexander Pope's Essay on Man and, notably, this: "We first endure, then pity, then embrace."

Essentially, Jackie Robinson's entrance into baseball was a Christmas pageant staged in the spring (albeit with quite a few more Herods and not so many wise men), and yet 40 Christmases later, when the man Robinson is dead, when his plaque is in the Hall of Fame, when stamps have been issued honoring him, even a musical composed in his praise, there still is so much inconvenience around. And wherever we stand along Pope's continuum, we are not yet together in the warm embrace that Mr. Rickey envisioned for some Christmas soon ahead.

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