Brian Hamilton: Getting to know Jackie
Being the father of a pair of princess-loving princesses, it’s not often that I get the opportunity to talk baseball with my girls – at least, not yet.
But after sinking into the sofa following a hard day’s night of work earlier this week, the opportunity was staring me right in the face.
There on the arm rest was an illustrated book that made me swell with pride. My daughter was reading about Jackie Robinson.
April 15 will mark the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson changed the sports world and so much more.
That’s when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.
“So, what did you learn?” I asked our 8-year-old, as she bounced on my bed while I attempted to open discussion about the book I was so pleased to have found a few nights earlier.
“I actually learned more in the book I read before,” she said, “about how to keep the Earth clean.”
“Right, but what did you learn about Jackie Robinson?”
“Oh! That book,” she said. “He was a famous baseball player.”
“And … he made it so black and white people could be together. It was kind of like another person I read a book about … Rosa Parks!”
And then she told me the story about Rosa and how she refused to surrender her bus seat and how she was arrested and how she was “put in jail!”
I told her that Jackie Robinson had actually once done the same thing, refusing to go to the back of the bus – about 11 years before Rosa Parks – and that it earned him a court martial.
“Whatza court martial?”
“Kind of like being arrested.”
Our conversation actually carried on throughout the morning, and extended beyond the book and Jackie Robinson.
We talked about slavery and segregation and racism and war, all of which she decided never would exist if people simply lived by the “golden rule” – which, of course, is the very lesson we adults expect the children to learn.
Lately I’ve come to realize that I learn a lot by simply taking notes from the eyes of a child. The answers at first seem so naive, but perhaps it’s just us grown-ups making things more complicated than necessary.
“Did you know that no one even cheered for him when he hit home runs?”
“Well,” I said, “Not all of them.”
“Why didn’t they like him?”
“They thought he was different.”
Then I remembered a column I had once read by Chicago’s great Mike Royko. I didn’t read it the first time it was published, on Oct. 25, 1972 – the day Jackie Robinson died. After all, I was less than eight months old. But Royko’s words captured the scene so well it preserved what so many Americans must have been feeling at the time.
In that column, Royko wrote about Robinson’s first appearance at Wrigley Field, a game he and another young boy walked five miles -no, not in the snow, nor uphill both ways – to witness firsthand. He decided the long walk would be worth seeing what all the fuss was about, after hearing the adults talking about this Jackie Robinson fella.
“All that Saturday,” Royko wrote, “the wise men of the neighborhood, who sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside the tavern, had talked about what it would do to baseball.
“I hung around and listened because baseball was about the most important thing in the world, and if anything was going to ruin it, I was worried.
“Most of the things they said, I didn’t understand, although it all sounded terrible. But could one man bring such ruin?”
Of course not.
But one man could be the first to break down such a barrier that it signified a sea of change coming to a country with a very dark past.
There was never a question of whether there were black ballplayers talented enough to play in the Majors. It was all about finding someone brave enough to withstand a predictable bigoted backlash and strong enough, as forever chronicled in Robinson’s famous dialogue with Dodgers president Branch Rickey.
Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Rickey: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
Now knowing what was asked of him, it seems so appropriate how that day, April 15, 1947, played out.
Jackie Robinson didn’t get a hit in the game, but reached base on an error in the seventh inning and scored the go-ahead run in a 5-3 Dodgers win over the Boston Braves. Fittingly, Robinson’s individual stats weren’t nearly as important as what he’d done for the common goal, the greater good or, if you will, the bigger picture.
Oh sure, two years later Robinson was the National League Most Valuable Player after leading the league in hitting and steals. And during his days with the Dodgers the team won six pennants.
As he once said, that game played 60 years ago – or any game he played or cause he fought for – wasn’t about Jackie Robinson.
“A life is not important,” he said, “except in the impact it has on other lives.”
The world couldn’t help but be a better place, if we were all so fortunate to lead lives that continue, long after we have passed, to impact the lives of so many others of all ages and all races.
“Jackie Robinson,” our 8-year-old girl said, “was a famous baseball player … who changed the world.”
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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The 2021 High School Optimist All Star teams for baseball, softball and boys volleyball have been announced, and several local student-athletes made the cut.