Jackie Robinson’s legacy deserves to be better celebrated in today’s political climate

by Trinity Bland, Opinion Editor

The legacy of Jackie Robinson is so colossal that it still continues to grow in depth and breadth.

On April 15, with every player wearing No. 42 jerseys (the jersey number Robinson wore and in turn, has been retired to honor Robinson) Major League Baseball pays respect and honors the legendary baseball player who changed the world. However,  the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of last year’s MLB season, denying the MLB the opportunity to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in its traditional on-field fashion.

 April 15, 1947, was when Robinson, playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the MLB’s color barrier, forever changing the game and society with it.

However, when commemorating such a significant historical event of this magnitude, we don’t necessarily need a stadium and a live game to do so. 

Of course, Jackie Robinson Day would be more gratifying if we could spend it in a buzzing stadium, eating hot dogs and cheering on the players who are all wearing No. 42, remembering baseball’s most important pioneer in more traditional ways. 

But last year was a time for adjustments, and April 15 will always be a historic day to be celebrated, regardless of the circumstances.

Due to the delay of last year’s season, MLB made plans to honor him a few months later on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington on Aug. 28, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his principled “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of people from all walks of life, estimated at 250,000, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson was in attendance and much like the speech, the impact his breakthrough into baseball had on his generation and beyond was inexplicably massive.

It was also on Aug. 28, 1945, when Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey informed Robinson of the organization’s monumental decision to make him the face of integration — and warned him of the pressures and pitfalls that lay ahead.

Postponing rather than canceling was undoubtedly the right thing to do, especially last year, as the country confronted its racist past and present. However, it would be more admirable for the league to honor the radical Robinson rather than the non-threatening Jackie it usually celebrates.

While inevitably educational, it appears if Jackie Robinson Day is becoming increasingly commercialized each year, with the league airing a constant stream of past games played on April 15, running documentaries detailing Robinson’s life, and presenting occasional feature stories reflecting on Robinson’s influence on baseball, civil rights and profiles of African-American players who became stars.

Every year there’s a league-wide celebration of Robinson’s barrier-breaking debut, but it doesn’t really do much to uphold his true legacy. The annual celebration has become more and more about the league celebrating itself instead of reflecting on how they still regularly contribute to racism.

Robinson is remembered as a groundbreaking baseball player and Hall of Famer, but he was also an activist. An encounter he described with a police officer in 1971 appears to be just as likely to occur today.

“It horrifies me to realize what might have happened if I had been just another citizen of Harlem,” Robinson said. “It shouldn’t be necessary to be named Jackie Robinson to keep from getting brutalized.”

On April 2, MLB announced that Atlanta will not host the 2021 All-Star Game in order to protest Georgia’s new discriminatory voting bill.

President Joe Biden referred to the legislature as “Jim Crow on steroids,” and urged MLB to pull the All-Star Game out of Atlanta. This was an unexpectedly surprising move for the league because despite being historically the most conservative of the major sports leagues, baseball has taken a stand in this way and acted without waiting to see what other leagues or conferences would do.

”It’s very impactful,’’ Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think in a world now where people want and need to be heard – in this particular case people of color – for MLB to listen and be proactive, I think it sets a tone from MLB to the players that we have to be in it together.” 

If MLB is serious about honoring Robinson in this historic moment by not hosting the All-Star game in Georgia this year, all it has to do is follow in his footsteps. This includes meeting with Black Lives Matter leaders, condemning police brutality, demanding police reforms and generously donating to Black communities in need – and then repeating that same process.

Otherwise, this year’s Jackie Robinson Day, like all the others, will be more about MLB’s front-office whiteness than the Black man who helped transform baseball, and subsequently, America.

By all means, this is not the year for MLB to display another video montage or flowery speech praising Robinson’s nonviolent response to racist players, coaches and fans when he was radical in the way he supported the Black Panthers in their fight against police brutality – as he should have. 

“As long as Jackie Robinson’s name is out there every year, that’s all that counts to me,” said Tommy Davis, a Black outfielder who won National League batting titles with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962-63. “He has to be remembered every year, for the rest of our lives, because of the fact that he was the first Black ballplayer. How important is that?”

Robinson put it best when he said, “Life is not a spectator sport. If you’re going to spend your whole life in the grandstand just watching what goes on, in my opinion, you’re wasting your life.”

Baseball is not a particularly progressive sport and there are many baseball fans who probably would have predicted that any one team would strike for a non-labor reason. After players called off ten games last year because they believed Black lives still do not matter in the United States, and with Jackie Robinson Day already scheduled, the tension that fuels today’s political climate was at an all-time high. 

The number of Black-American managers is so few. The number of Black-Americans within MLB-affiliated organizations and in the stands is appalling. I say this as a Black-American that can be found in the stands of Nationals Park in Washington D.C., on a good day (or a rainy day, which can sometimes still be considered a good day) and it’s rare that I see many others that look like me there.

The number of Black-Americans playing the game is narrowing, although, the number of today’s prospects do offer a glimmer of hope. 

Even so, all of these factors contribute to the sport’s extremely toxic culture, and they all contribute to the incredibly difficult day-to-day experiences of non-white players.

The words and outrage of St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty, who wondered why MLB had not called off its schedule when the NBA and NHL after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, is a step in the right direction in terms of raising awareness to the social issues that some baseball fans may sweep under the rug.

“By the NBA not playing [Wednesday], you had to listen,” Flaherty said. “You had to listen to, well, why? Well, because of what went on in Wisconsin. Because of what is going on since George Floyd was murdered, and what has gone on for the last 400 years.”

“I think the most difficult part is to see people still don’t care. For this to just continually happen, it just shows just the hate in people’s hearts,” Mets outfielder Dom Smith said, full of emotion, to reporters regarding the Blake shooting after a win against the Marlins.

“If that doesn’t hit you differently, it should,” Smith said. “Because we’re all human.”

“We made a collective group decision to not play tonight, to let our voices be heard for standing up for what we believe is right.” Clayton Kershaw said, in support of Dodgers teammate Mookie Betts, after they made the decision to not play after hearing the news about the Blake shooting. 

In the same protest-like capacity, Colorado Rockies outfielder Matt Kemp stood alone in the visiting dugout at Chase Field as the only Rockies player to take a stand against racial injustice following the pressing summer-long Black Lives Matter Movement but especially with the breaking news of the Blake shooting, by sitting out Colorado’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A day later with the Blake shooting weighing heavy on the nation’s conscience – let alone the sports world – Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story shed tears at a missed opportunity for solidarity and played the night Kemp did not.

“We had a chance to stand up for our guy last night,” Story said. “We didn’t do that.”

Kemp has known to be outspoken about racial injustice in recent years as one of the first MLB players to kneel for the national anthem in protest. However, he did not critique his Colorado teammates who chose to play instead.

“I know the hearts of my teammates,” Kemp said. “They’ve supported me 100 percent.”

During that time, Kemp’s mother, Judy Henderson, took to Facebook to write a statement about her feelings about the Dodgers organization as a whole and their response to the injustice. 

“One of the reasons I love the Dodger Organization. Mookie’s teammates stood with him in solidarity,” Henderson wrote. “The whole team! Not just the Black players protested – the whole team protested!!”

With players becoming more vocal about social injustice and the things that truly matter – like Black lives – it enables MLB fans to better understand the weight of what has continued to, unfortunately, transpire across generations. This is what Jackie Robinson Day is all about: raising awareness. 

Truthfully speaking, this is exactly what Robinson was all about.

Integrating and breaking the color barrier within MLB was only one part of his special process to change the world. Robinson’s primary mission throughout his life and career was to act on his activism and dreams of wanting Black-Americans to experience a world where they are valued — whether they were an MLB player or not. 

Robinson’s efforts unlocked a whole new world for the country and for the league — and things haven’t been the same since. 

This is why his entire legacy, including his amazing career in baseball and his radical activism, deserves to be wholeheartedly celebrated now more than ever. 

Perhaps like April 15, 1947 and April 8, 1974 (the glorious day when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s record), April 2, 2021, another date in the same month will go down not only in baseball history but also in Black history, which in turn, is American history.

Trinity Bland is a junior studying television, film, media and Spanish. Follow her on Twitter @trinityaliciaa. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email