16 April 2012

A Tribute to Jackie Robinson

Yesterday, the major leagues held their annual tribute to Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to play in the Major Leagues.  It's been 65 years now since Robinson integrated baseball, and the game, and the world has been the better for it. 

It should be noted that Robinson was chosen to play (by Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) not only for his baseball abilities, but for his character and personality.  His ability to hold his tongue while having taunts and objects thrown at him by fans (opposing and his own) and players made the "Jackie Robinson Experiment" a success and allowed other teams to integrate black players into their ranks in the following years.*

Robinson actually started his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers with their minor league affiliate at the time, the Montreal Royals, spending the 1946 season there.  While Robinson experienced a great deal of racism while the team was on road trips in the US, at home, Robinson was revered by the Montreal fans.  I'd like to think that this reflects well on Canada, and our openness to all races and ethnicities.

In 1947, he was brought to the major leagues and suffered the slings and arrows of American racists, both on the field and off.  However, as Branch Rickey told Robinson before he was signed to a contract, he was the player who "had enough guts not to fight back."  While some objected initially, his teammates eventually united behind him and were there to support him in his daily battles with overt and subtle racism.

Sculpture of Peewee Reese and Jackie Robinson in front of MCU Park in Brooklyn, NY
Another story has the Jewish baseball star, Hank Greenberg (by then at the end of his career), whispering words of encouragement in Robinson's ear after a collision at 1st base. 

Within 2 or 3 years, most major league teams had become integrated.  Yes, if Jackie Robinson had not been the first black major leaguer, someone else would have held that distinction.  However, if the "Noble Experiment" had failed, it may have been years before another general manager would have been willing to try.

Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball was an important symbol to the American people that black people could be more than just society's underclass.  Like integrated swing orchestras in the 1930s (including Jewish clarinettist Benny Goodman's bands), the integration of baseball was one link in a chain of events that led to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. 

While American (and Canadian) society isn't perfect, let's all think about where we would be if the southern US states still practiced segregation.  Living in Europe for the last several months, I can see an ugly racist streak rising again in the form of "Christian Democrat" parties.  A conversation I had yesterday with a friend from Sweden told me that these racist parties are looking to push out immigrants, particularly Muslim ones.  These parties are not saying anything new.  They are stoking the fires of heterogeneous nationalism** that, you can argue, were the cause of of almost all of the violence on this continent since the beginning of the 20th century. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has recently declared that multi-culturalism in Germany is dead.***  Perhaps the Europeans need to look to the painful struggles of black people in North America, and the examples of exceptional human beings like Jackie Robinson to understand the contributions that ALL citizens can make to society.

I hope everyone had a happy Jackie Robinson Day.  The Blue Jays won.

* In a rather shameful display, the Boston Red Sox were the last major league team to integrate.
** See Niall Fergusons "The War of the World" about war in the 20th century.
*** http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/17/angela-merkel-germany-multiculturalism-failures

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