Allegany Communications Sports

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, the day when fans who aren’t tuned in to the world never know who most of the players are because they’re all wearing No. 42 to honor the Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson, who became the first Black player in MLB history on April 15, 1947.

The thing is, not knowing who was who, indirectly, was the original point of it all. Though it was Robinson’s teammate, Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, not MLB, who thought of it 77 years ago.

During a game in Cincinnati, one of MLB’s most southern cities at the time, Robinson was the target of slurs and heckling from not only the Cininnati fans, but the Reds players as well. During a timeout in the game, Reese, who was from nearby Louisville and was a fan favorite in Cincinnati, walked over to second base and put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder until play resumed, and in the process, silenced the slurs from the grandstands and the opposing dugout.

“Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear ‘42’,” Reese said after the game, “that way they won’t be able to tell us apart.”

Seventy-seven years after he broke baseball’s color barrier, we remember Jackie Robinson, but we should have him and others like him in our thoughts every day.

Twenty-seven years ago on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s historic debut, Major League Baseball celebrated the day for the first time by retiring his number 42 throughout the big leagues, with all MLB players on every team to wear the number during games on April 15.

Eric Davis, then an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, said he appreciated the tribute, but wondered if it would be another 50, or even another 10 years before we would remember Robinson again, pointing to the then-declining rate of Black ballplayers in the major leagues, his words being, “What took us so long?”

Well, that number has continued to decline to the tune of 6.0 percent, down from 6.3 percent a year ago, which should be astonishing. But what would Jackie Robinson think of that?

I believe he would be sad about it, given all he had to endure, but I believe he would also be hopeful in knowing there are many more avenues for young Black people to pursue in this day.

Jackie Robinson lived his life for inclusion and freedom of choice for all people in all phases of life. And in sports, if football (which Robinson starred in, as well as in basketball and track, at UCLA) is a young person’s game of choice, he now has the freedom to pursue it. The same is true for basketball, baseball and any other sport that is available.

Yesterday was the 77th anniversary of Jackie Robinson opening doors that weren’t open to everybody before, but Davis was right in his belief that we should remember Jackie Robinson every day. Though former Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds may have put the celebration in the best perspective.

“What does it mean to all African American players? I don’t think only African American athletes should be answering the question,” Bonds said years ago. “Some of the white ball players should be answering as well. We already know what it means to us. We’ve answered that question a thousand times over. The question is what has it done for the game of baseball?

“Baseball is the American pastime. We have more Asian players, more Hispanic players, more Canadian players, more European players.

“Baseball is for everyone and Jackie Robinson was at the forefront of all the changes.”

Contrary to what many of us believe, Jackie Robinson was not the first Black player to play professional baseball at the major league level. That would have either been Moses Fleetwood Walker or William Edward White. Walker, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association, a professional baseball league now considered a major league by most baseball historians, made his major league baseball debut on May 1, 1884 against the Louisville Eclipse.

Research indicates, however, that White, who played one game for the Providence Grays in 1879, may have been the first Black major league player. The son of a white former slaveholder from Georgia and his mixed-race mistress, White attended college at Brown University where he also played varsity baseball. He filled in for one game for the Grays on June 21, 1879 when the Providence team was short-handed.

It is unclear if White’s contemporaries in Rhode Island knew of his racial background as his race is never mentioned in any accounts of his baseball career at Brown or with Providence. Furthermore, the 1880 census, as well as several later censuses, indicate his race as “white,” but he may have been passing as a white man during his time in Rhode Island.

As for Walker, shortly after he was released by Syracuse in July of 1889, the American Association and the National League both unofficially banned Black players, making the adoption of Jim Crow in baseball complete.

Baseball would remain segregated until 1946 when Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.

In the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Jackie Robinson’s original plaque did not mention one word about his integrating Major League Baseball, which Robinson himself was more than okay with, telling the New York Daily News’ Dick Young he would hope his enshrinement would be based on merit, which it was.

Four decades later, however, Robinson’s widow Rachel Robinson felt the time had come for the historical record to be updated, and the Hall of Fame agreed and complied with a new plaque.

“A very important part of Jack’s life has been acknowledged today in a more total way,” Rachel Robinson said when the new plaque was unveiled in 2008. “As he said, those of us who are fortunate to receive such an honor must use it to help others. As young people view Jack’s new Hall of Fame plaque, they will look beyond statistics and embrace all that Jack has meant and all that they can be.”

Jackie Robinson said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Because of Jackie Robinson, baseball is for everyone. He helped us to understand, in fact, that everything is for everyone.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT