Today, we celebrate Jackie Robinson. It is fitting that this article was written on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a dear friend of Jackie’s. Someone who led the good fight for human justice and respect.
Jackie was more than a ball player. He is an icon, a revolutionary, a leader, and therefore someone we can and should emulate. As we celebrate Jackie’s birthday, he would have been 97 years-old on January 31, 2016, we are reminded that he should be celebrated daily. His values, his work ethic, and demonstration of turning the other cheek are admirable and timeless.
Jackie’s life was a brilliant one. Jackie’s life can, in some sense, be summed up in the quotes that he is remembered for, which he stated at different stages in his life. We begin with this one.
“The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.” -Jackie Robinson
First, not counting his value to the game and society as a human being, he gave the fans, Major League Baseball, and the Dodgers organization a reason to be excited and proud of his accomplishments. Jackie was a terrific ball player. Jackie was a four-letter athlete in high school and at UCLA, is in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, was a 6 time All-Star (1949–1954), World Series champion (1955) (the Dodgers first championship), the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 1949, the Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year in 1947, the National League’s Batting Champion in 1949, hitting .342, and two-time stolen base leader (1947 and 1949).
Second, Jackie’s jersey number, 42, is retired by all Major League Baseball teams and each year all the league’s players wear his number in honor of his debut on April 15, 1947. Jackie was also named to the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. Ironic that Jackie’s debut was on tax day in America. Instead of collecting taxes, Jackie collected our hearts and minds with his passion and dedication to the game and social change. Jackie became the first player since 1880 to openly break the major league baseball color line. Jackie indeed broke the color barrier in baseball, while the game and society are better for it.
Third, Jackie withstood the test of time and challenges. He led the good fight down the narrow path. Jackie’s middle name is named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who died 25 days before Jackie’s birth. Jackie carried the President’s vision and hope for a better future. He also carried his strength. He had many enemies because of the color of his skin, but he kept his cool and focused more on the goal and those who would follow him into the game of baseball and life. Just ask Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Henry “Hank” Aaron about Jackie’s contribution to life and the game.
As shown in the 2013 movie “42” about Jackie Robinson, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman was deriding Jackie in horrible fashion. After failing to reach base, Jackie held his head high and walked back to the dugout. Jackie resisted a physical fight, but Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey quipped:
“[Chapman’s actions and Jackie’s non-response] did more than anybody to unite the Dodgers. When he [Chapman] poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united thirty men.”
Dodger’s teammate and friend Pee Wee Reese (also a member of the Hall of Fame) came to Robinson’s defense and said, “You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them.” Much like Jackie uniting the Dodgers behind him and the great cause, he united a country. He made people see him and human decency differently. He made change happen through his actions.
His time in baseball can best be summed up in a quote by Jackie. He once said
“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
That about says it all.
We most certainly owe Jackie more as compared to what he gave. The humility of his actions, his faith in God, and his thoughts are wonderful and demonstrate the content of his character. Sadly, the stresses of his early life facing abuse likely led to his early death in 1972 at the age of 53. Maybe he died of a broken heart. Too many good men die young. Our hope here is that his message lives on through all of our actions.
Like a baseball game in Yankee Stadium after September 11, 2001, Jackie is entrenched in history as someone that helped bring together and heal America through sport.
“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
In 53 years on Earth, not to mention his Hall of Fame baseball career, Jackie was a college graduate, served in the Army, made his way up through the Negro Leagues, the Minors, broke the color barrier into organized baseball, marched with the King, addressed Congress, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 posthumously by President Ronald Reagan. In 2005, Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, accepted, posthumously, the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband from President George W. Bush.
What a life he lived! He was never a spectator. Always giving, living, and growing.
“Above anything else, I hate to lose.” -Jackie Robinson
This should not be confused with loving to win or loving to beat or ridicule people. Jackie was so concerned with giving his all and to be proud of his effort that he hated losing. Losing to him was more than just not winning, it was about effort, not giving up, while showing humility and class, always.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” -Jackie Robinson
It may be fitting that we end this article with a quote from Jackie that is forever entrenched on his grave stone. No man in the history of baseball, possibly in all of sports history, better portrayed and lived the dual role of hero and ball player, role model and superstar, athlete and father, clubhouse leader and husband. Jackie may have passed on in this life, but we can still see his actions for change and we can hope to see him again, stealing a base or a base hit, while simultaneously leading a life through action. “All the proof of a pudding is in the eating,” or simply, like Jackie said, he did. Jackie lived a life that impacted other lives.
Happy Birthday Jackie, today, and always.