Tuesday, April 17, 2007

American Greatness – Jackie Robinson

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

Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of the first game Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking MLB’s color barrier. It wouldn’t be an understatement that the single most important event in American history in the 20th Century took place on April 15, 1947. Baseball was America’s pastime in 1947.

The Rams moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946, it was stipulated in their contract with the Los Angeles Coliseum that they had to integrate their team, so they signed two UCLA teammates, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington, who were playing semi-pro ball in the area in 1946. But the NFL wasn’t considered a major sports league at the time. Earl Lloyd was the first African American to actually play in an NBA game. The date was October 31, 1950, one day ahead of Charles Cooper of the Boston Celtics and four days before Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of the New York Knicks.

And the courage Rosa Parks had to say no to segregation on public buses in the American South took place on December 1, 1955 to not obey bus driver James Blake's demand that she relinquish her seat to a white man. Her subsequent arrest and trial for this act of civil disobedience triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history, and launched Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the organizers of the boycott, to the forefront of the civil rights movement. Her role in American history earned her an iconic status in American culture, and her actions have left an enduring legacy for civil rights movements around the world.

Be very clear about the impact Jackie Robinson had on American society, American Culture and America as a country in 1947; America was a lot like South Africa was in 1980’s a country that treated Black people as second class citizens. It will always be Jackie Robinson who took those first powerful steps forward. It may have been Neil Armstrong who took one giant step for mankind when he became the first person to walk on the surface of the moon, but it was Jackie Robinson who took one giant leap that touched the soul of America.

“I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” Jackie Robinson

"Jackie (Robinson), we've got no army. There's virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans will be hostile. We'll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I'm doing this because you're a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman." words from Branch Rickey the man who signed Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella to professional baseball contracts before the 1946 season. All three enjoyed Hall of Fame careers as members of the Dodgers. Robinson played the 2946 season for the Dodgers Triple A affiliate the Montreal Royals and Newcombe and Campanella for the Nashua Dodgers a lower level Dodgers minor league affiliate in the new defunct New England Baseball League.

In fact, could anybody have known that putting Robinson, a black man, onto a baseball field with a team of white men would do for America what nothing else had done for race relations since the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson legalized segregation?

"That's almost an impossible question to answer," said Robert Ruck, a senior lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and an authority on black baseball. "I think that if Robinson's arrival in the Majors had been a chaotic social disaster, it would have made it more difficult for this country to change."

"I don't see why a top-flight Negro ballplayer would be so anxious to play in the white leagues when he is doing so well in his own organization," Atlanta Journal sports editor Ed Danforth is quoted as saying at the time in historian Jules Tygiel's book "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy."

"Robinson created a sort of picture that all society should be integrated," said Titus Brown, a professor of history and African-American Studies at Florida A&M University. "That's why we could see a shifting and changing in society in the mid-1950s."

"It seems to me," Ruck said, "that when something happens in one area of American life and it happens smoothly -- maybe not from Jackie's point of view, because he had to deal with a lot -- then that just makes it easy for further change.

"In subtle, subconscious ways, it makes it easier for white people to accept black people and to hire black people in positions they had not been hired before."

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Robinson in 1962 and he was a member of six World Series teams. He earned six consecutive All-Star Game nominations and won several awards during his career. In 1947, Robinson won The Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award and the first MLB Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, he was awarded his first National League MVP Award. In addition to his accomplishments on the field, Jackie Robinson was also a forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement. He was a key figure in the establishment and growth of the Freedom Bank, an African-American owned and controlled entity, in the 1960s. He also wrote a syndicated newspaper column for a number of years, in which he was an outspoken supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to a lesser degree, Malcolm X.

“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.” Jackie Robinson

Robinson engaged in political campaigning for a number of politicians, including the Democrat Hubert Humphrey and the Republican Richard Nixon.

In recognition of his accomplishments, Robinson was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

On April 15, 1997, the 50 year anniversary of his debut in the MLB, Major League Baseball retired the number 42; the number Robinson wore, in recognition of his accomplishments both on and off the field. In 1950, he was the subject of a film biography, The Jackie Robinson Story, in which he played himself. He became a political activist in his post-playing days.

Robinson retired on January 5, 1957. He had wanted to manage or coach in the major leagues, but received no offers. He became a vice-president for the Chock Full O' Nuts Corporation instead, and served on the board of the NAACP until 1967, when he resigned. During the early to late 1950s, Jackie and Louis Ostrer owned Jackie Robinson's, a men's clothing store located on 125th St. in New York City.

He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, becoming the first African-American so honored. In 1965, Robinson served as a color commentator for ABC's Game of the Week telecasts. On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number 42 alongside Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax.

Robinson made his final public appearance on October 14, 1972, before Game 2 of the World Series. He used this chance to express his wish for a black manager to be hired by a Major League Baseball team.

This wish was granted two years later, following the 1974 season, when the Cleveland Indians gave their managerial post to Frank Robinson, a Hall of Fame bound slugger who was then still an active player, and no relation to Jackie Robinson. At the press conference announcing his hiring, Frank expressed his wish that Jackie had lived to see the moment.

Major League Baseball had planned on honoring Jackie Robinson at the 15 games scheduled for Sunday. With rain wiping out a half dozen games in the Northeast the tribute’s to Robinson will continue throughout the next few weeks. The Boston Red Sox will honor Jackie Robinson’s legacy Sunday when the BoSox take on the New York Yankees at Fenway Park. The good news Sunday, the center of MLB’s celebrations was Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Dodgers left Brooklyn after the 1957 season.

"[Jackie] forever changed the social course of our nation [that day]," Bud Selig MLB's ninth Commissioner said standing at a podium in front of the pitcher's mound at Dodger Stadium Sunday night. "He ended that disgraceful practice of segregation that existed in Major League Baseball."

Rachel Robinson, the wife of Jackie Robinson and founder of The Jackie Robinson Foundation, was presented with the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award by Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig during an afternoon media event prior to Sunday's national celebration of Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

The Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award, created in 1998 to recognize achievement of historical significance, was given to Rachel Robinson for her contribution and sacrifice to the legacy of her husband, Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Throughout her life, Mrs. Robinson has championed numerous social and charitable causes and, in 1973, founded The Jackie Robinson Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide scholarships and leadership training.

"Rachel Robinson has played a significant role in the history of baseball through the strength she gave her husband, Jackie, and the way she has continued to champion the causes in which they both believed so strongly," said Commissioner Selig. "On the 60th anniversary of Jackie's entry into the Major Leagues, it is fitting to honor Rachel with this prestigious award."

"We give this great honor very rarely to people who have had a major impact on the sport," said Selig, upon announcing the award. "She'll be the first person to receive it for what she has done off the field. But she's made an enormous impact. Jackie had her to talk to in 1947 and '48 during those extraordinary years. Their participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Her work with the Robinson Foundation. She not only made baseball better, she made society better."

Mrs. Robinson is the first woman to receive the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award. Past recipients include Roberto Clemente (posthumously), Ichiro Suzuki, Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa.

The trophy, which stands 12 inches tall, has a sterling silver base with a baseball mounted at the top. The words "Commissioner's Historic Achievement" are engraved around the base of the trophy with the Major League Baseball silhouetted batter logo above the type.

"This was a great surprise -- I wasn't tipped off," the game's grand lady said after accepting the 12-inch high trophy -- a gold baseball resting atop a silver base. "But it's also a great honor. I was brought up in baseball in my adult life and I'm very identified with the game and very proud with what we've done with the game."

Since Robinson's death at 53 years old, his widow has tirelessly worked for the foundation, which offers college scholarships to underprivileged minority students, and has continued her quest for the public to maintain a high level of awareness about her late husband's achievements.

The foundation, which was established in 1973, has flourished boasting a 97 percent graduation rate among those young men and women awarded college scholarships of $10,000 a year.

"We incorporated the Foundation a year after Jack passed," Rachel Robinson said. "That was a devastating time for us emotionally. It was a way for us to hold on to him. We wanted a living memorial and a living tribute."

"We should use this occasion to reflect on how far we've come as a nation," said Mrs. Robinson, the first woman among the 10 individuals and one team to receive a prestigious award that was established by Selig in 1998. "But we must continue to collectively struggle for equal opportunity in all aspects of our lives."

MLB.com once again demonstrating how masterful Bob Bowman the CEO of MLB Interactive has melded together the Internet and getting out baseball’s message about Jackie Robinson offered a complete menu of multi-media coverage relating to Robinson’s impact. From a Spike Lee produced documentary to today’s players being offered a platform to talk about how they feel about Jackie Robinson, the coverage served as a tremendous addition to MLB.com’s overall coverage.

What started with Ken Griffey Jr. asking Rachel Robinson if he could wear Jackie’s number 42 Sunday turned into a tribute that when all was said and done included more than 250 MLB’ers wearing number 42 for one special day. There are those who suggested too many players donned number 42 that it watered down the tribute. What would have been perfect, if every MLB player regardless of their skin color choose to wear number 42 Sunday – that would have been perfect.

Griffey last wore No. 42 on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's historical moment, while he played for the Seattle Mariners. One of his Reds No. 42 jerseys will be put next to it. The rest will likely be auctioned off for charity, one of them via MLB.com.

"I grew up a little differently," Griffey said. "I also had Joe Black, Brooks Lawrence, Chuck Harmon Sr. -- all those guys were at my house and just told me what it was like to play in the '40s and '50s and '50s and '60s, the barnstorming and all that."

"I think it's important for baseball to take the lead on [celebrating Robinson], because Jackie Robinson is one of our own," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "I think it's a great reminder to our entire country."

Narron also has a unique perspective on the day. His uncle, Sam, played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and '40s when Branch Rickey ran the club. As a Dodgers executive, Rickey later signed Robinson to a Minor League contract on Aug. 28, 1945. After he left St. Louis, Sam Narron worked for Rickey in the Dodgers and Pirates organizations.

Jerry Narron grew up in North Carolina and heard plenty about Rickey.

"Mr. Rickey was a solid person, a man of character," Narron said. "Our entire country owes Branch Rickey a great deal of gratitude. I believe he's often overlooked. It took somebody willing to give Jackie Robinson a chance. At that time, there was wasn't a whole lot of people willing to do it."

"If you break down barriers in one field, it directly impacts others, particularly economic, political and social," said Julius Thompson, a professor of history and black studies at the University of Missouri. "So for me, it had implications in all these other areas in advancing civil rights and general human rights in the United States and other countries."

Russell Martin, an African-Canadian who had three hits for the Dodgers Sunday, said the sight of No. 42 all over the field drove home the impact Robinson has had on the game and society.

"There are times when we get heckled by fans and you think it's the end of the world, then you think about what he had to go through and you realize, you just better move on," said Martin. "His courage was unprecedented. I'm proud to wear his number. To see all those 42s out there, we were playing our hearts out. The fans were really excited and we were really excited. This was just a fun day and a day I'll never forget."

Outfielder Juan Pierre was one of the first Dodgers to inquire about wearing Robinson's number as a tribute during Spring Training, and the suggestion turned into an industry-wide movement.
"This is a very special day," said Pierre. "I'm glad I was here to see this. It might not happen again in my lifetime."

"I got goosebumps and I wasn't even on the field," said Dodgers catcher Russell Martin, who was in the bullpen warming up pitcher Randy Wolf during the pregame ceremonies. "It just goes to show that everybody loved Jackie."

"I would like people to study and get to know the man in total," Rachel Robinson added. "The richness of his personality doesn't always come across.

"He's thought of as aggressive and angry because of the way he played. That was his public persona, when he was in competition. He wouldn't even let me beat him in gin rummy. But his humility was what attracted me to him.

"I want people to remember his courage and that he was someone who cared about others."

"He said we're bitter now, but one day we're going to change one letter and turn that 'I' to an 'E,' from bitter to better," former Dodger teammate Don Newcombe said. "God knows Jackie must have been a prophet, because things certainly got better."

Shortly after the Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut on April 15, 1947, Larry Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians by their owner Bill Veeck in 1947, eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the National League. In his rookie season, Doby hit 5-for-32 in 29 games.

But it was Jackie Robinson who took that fateful first step 50 years ago; it was Jackie Robinson’s inner soul, what made him a man’s man that helped America, was the catalyst in the evolution of America as a country and as a people.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: MLB.com

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