Tuesday is an important day on the Major League Baseball schedule. Jackie Robinson Day honors one of the most compelling men to ever play the game, a man who taught baseball lessons it consistently fails to heed, even some 65 years later.
Jackie Robinson is lauded for his bravery, his perseverance, and his humanity as he travelled a nearly impossible road to the big leagues, riding superstar talent and character to become a starter for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Tuesday is a day that all major-league players don the number 42, to pay tribute to the man and one of his most famous quotations, a sign of solidarity and togetherness not often seen in our world. Moreover, the battles fought during Jackie Robinson’s journey to the big leagues are still being waged today – on another front.
Jackie Robinson faced hardships – unimaginable ones in today’s world. Not that today’s world is a post-racial utopia, far from it. Today the racism is much more insidious. Robinson suffered taunts and threats of physical violence. Today, an Ivy-educated engineer, author, broadcaster, and retired major leaguer with 15 years of professional service time can be racially profiled and confronted in his own driveway.
Today a Cuban superstar must be trafficked out of his home country to Mexico where he awaits the opportunity to sign with a major league club. He sits in a seedy motel waiting for shifty agents to work out the details of his exchange, only to find himself paying thousands or even millions out of his own pocket to prevent threats on his life and the life of his family.
When he eventually reaches a land with which he is unfamiliar and ill-equipped to handle, he is blasted for being immature and selfish.
Other major American sports count “out” athletes among their ranks. Jason Collins played 20 games for the Brooklyn Nets this season, months after he publicly acknowledged his sexuality. Michael Sam came out after his time as one of college football’s top linemen came to an end, ready to enter the professional ranks with no secrets. UMass guard Derrick Gordon said he felt “awesome” after coming out after his freshman season in the A-10.
Baseball does not yet have such a pioneer. Instead, baseball has teams that are too Latin to win, and declining participation among African-Americans. Baseball has a lot of work to do.
That work begins with celebrating Jackie Robinson and honoring him on Jackie Robinson Day. That work continues by remembering the hardships he encountered while acknowledging many hardships remain for many in the game of baseball. The lessons of Jackie Robinson are not lost on the three black men currently holding MLB manager positions.
The battles are fought on different terms but the battles are fought all the same. Each retelling of Jackie Robinson’s story is an opportunity to learn, to teach, and to use the powerful flashlight of Major League Baseball to expose those injustices still lurking in dark corners.
The sharp edges of Jackie Robinson’s story might be worn down, thanks to 65 years of retelling and some poetic license. That doesn’t make it any less powerful a weapon when wielded correctly.