Let’s be clear. Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first man.
He wasn’t the first Black athlete to play in a professional American sports league. There were Black professional football players who came before him. Robinson was the first to play in the Major League Baseball association…which was America’s national pastime at the time of Robinson’s entrance. Which was why his profile was so high.
Jackie Robinson wasn’t the loudest man.
But he was no pushover either. He could actually be a firebrand when it came to personal and/or group racism. But, he wasn’t the sonic hurricane that Muhammad Ali was, nor did he possess the stony gravitas of Jim Brown. Or the cerebral detachment of Kareem Abdul- Jabbar. Robinson was publicly ultra-dignified and buttoned down (although Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who signed Robinson to his legendary contract, told Robinson he couldn’t lash out at anyone who would attack him verbally or physically).
Jackie Robinson wasn’t the most talented man.
When Robinson was plucked from the Negro Leagues to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was fairly well known among die-hard baseball fans that Robinson wasn’t the best player the all-Black leagues had to offer. There were several players that were better athletes. But, Robinson’s distinguished background: superstar four sport college athletic career, military experience (he was an officer in the Army), eloquent speaking, and movie star good looks made him the most attractive candidate to break professional baseball’s color barrier.
So. Why does Jackie Robinson matter?
Jackie Robinson was the right Black man.
Robinson was the right Black man at the right time. If a Black man was going to make the most seismic social entrance in America’s most popular sport at the time, it had to be Jackie Robinson. It had to be a guy who was smart and strong enough to not fight back, at least for a few years, when he was verbally assaulted with racial epithets or physically assaulted. And it had to be a man who was also talented enough to win games.
In life, a typical person’s life, maybe even your life, sometimes you might need to be different you. The version of you at your job and career may not be the version of you at a party. The refined parts of your identity may help you at a business meeting or a fundraiser, but the tougher, more street parts of you could serve you well in an edgy situation in a tough part of town. Not only does a person’s personal life demand certain versions of that person, but at times, public figures in certain situations also have to deal with this kind of…casting. Al Sharpton is a gifted leader and orator. He has pull and influence in the African-American community. But do you think he should’ve run for President of the United States in 2008 instead of Barack Obama? Both men have served communities. Both men are incredible speakers and capable leaders of men. But, who’s more presidential? Al or Barack? I think you know the answer.
The fact is, even though African-Americans were catching hell in 1947 (what Chris Rock has called “real racism”), the year that Robinson was called up to the majors, there had to be a certain kind of Black man and athlete to play on the baseball field and withstand the glare of a huge spotlight. First, the skill of the Black athlete was being called into question. Back then, for years it was said that African-American players weren’t good enough to play professional baseball with their white counterparts. This sounds insane in 2016, but these were really different times. Second, the character and entire makeup of the Black man/woman was being debated by many in white society at the time. The jury was still out on whether we were socially aware, cultured, and even smart enough to function on a national stage.
This is where Robinson excelled. He took terrible verbal abuse from, at first his own Brooklyn Dodgers teammates. Not surprisingly, he had racial epithets slung at him by opposing teams, and even the managers of those opposing teams. He even suffered a serious gash in his leg from another player. Despite this horrible treatment, Robinson remained dignified, articulate, and even charming when speaking to the press. It’s a known fact that privately, he seethed at his treatment from the league and society in general. But, as Branch Rickey knew, and Robinson himself, he was the man, arguably the only man, who had the mental and emotional tools to pull off this bold social experiment.
When you think about it, he pretty much was the only professional athlete who could’ve pulled off his Gandhi meets Reggie Jackson “routine” (I’ll discuss that description in the next paragraph) for a long as he did. Muhammad Ali (I know, he didn’t play baseball, just roll with me) would’ve been too loud and brash to do it. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would’ve been too brainy to pull it off. Jim Brown would’ve snapped someone in half…on camera, if he was called out of his name just one time. It took someone as regal as Jackie Robinson to handle the burden of being the pioneer he became.
Now, about my “routine” remark in the last paragraph. It turns out that Robinson wasn’t a saint for long. Later in his career, when he proved he could indeed play professional baseball and win, which opened the doors for several other Black and Latino players to enter the league, Robinson revealed himself to be the outspoken, serious, and tough guy he really was. In his final few years in baseball, he was a take no sh** grinder who wasn’t shy about being heard by opposing players, umpires, and even sports media. Robinson’s fire wasn’t extinguished when he retired from baseball either. For years, until his death, Robinson was a passionate, tireless crusader for Black people and the Civil Rights Movement, even befriending Dr. Martin Luther King.
Jackie Robinson wasn’t a perfect man. He had a few (serious) stumbles as an activist later in life. He was a great athlete, although not as revered as other Negro League baseball players, like Satchel Paige. And he was never a counter culture hero to 1960s college kids like Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, or Brown. But, he was the right man. At the right place. At the right time.
And that’s alright with me.