This happened at Shea Stadium a few decades ago: My son and I were in a half-empty section, not far from two older black men.
One of the Mets made a clodhopper move on the bases, and was tagged out.
One of the two fans then turned to the other and said, “Jackie Robinson wouldn’t have done that.” I chortled, and we struck up a conversation, having the burning image of Jackie Robinson very much in common.
Jackie Robinson hovered over that game, and he has hovered over every game that has been played since April 15, 1947, when he made his major-league debut.
He upgraded the game, and he upgraded my Brooklyn Dodgers, and he upgraded life in America in his 10 years in the major leagues and in his short but active career out in the Real World, pushing for opportunities for black people in all businesses.
He raised the consciousness of Americans, whether they wanted it or not, and that is good reason to honor him on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
He was a hero in my family. I met him once, under the stands in Ebbets Field, in a hot dog line, during a game in 1954 when he wasn’t playing. We asked him how his injury was, and he answered a couple of teenagers with politeness. (I was shocked to see his gray hair and thickening midsection. He seemed old before his time. The stress seemed to have aged him.)
I also interviewed him once on the phone, around 1966, when I was doing a story on the absence of black coaches and managers in baseball.
When I called for the prearranged interview, he turned the theme around, asking how many black journalists were in the sports department where I worked. Umm, none, I said, thereby touching off a monologue on lack of opportunity everywhere. That’s what I’m talking about, he said. I consider the lecture a highlight of my career.
Decades later, I told his widow, Rachel Robinson, about our testy interview.
“That sounds like Jack,” she said, with her Mona Lisa smile.
The world was not paying attention when Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919, in Cairo, Ga. Back east we began learning about him in 1945, when Branch Rickey signed him to a contract with the Brooklyn organization.
His presence in Dodger camp in 1946 was a big deal in my family’s home in Queens County, just east of the mother ship — that is to say, Brooklyn. We were Dodgers fans and my parents were also 1930s lefties who adored Franklin Delano Roosevelt and who regarded two other African-Americans, Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson, as icons, both for their singing talent and for their dignity.
Not all Dodgers fans came from our sociopolitical point of view, of course, but Jackie Robinson was on all Dodgers fans’ minds as he trained with dubious white teammates in 1946 and then succeeded at the top farm club in Montreal that season.
The next year, the phone rang in our house on April 10. My dad was calling from his newspaper office and he had momentous news to relay: The Dodgers had signed Jackie Robinson to a major league contract and he would make his debut on Opening Day, five days later. I was almost 8; I can remember the exhilaration.
And if working-class white folks like us were enthused, it was even more personal for black folks, when there was finally a ballplayer who looked like them.
Ed Charles, the poet-third baseman of the 1969 Mets, who died a year ago, often talked about being a youth in Florida in the late 1940s, watching the touring Dodgers departing by railroad after an exhibition, watching Jackie Robinson play cards with his white teammates.
The Dodgers won the pennant in 1947, Robinson’s first season, and just as important, they gave Brooklyn fans the lifelong certainty that our team was The Good Guys.
And what began for everyone in 1947 was a decade of Jackie Robinson on the field, running the bases pigeon-toed, a big man, a former tailback with adult weight on him, starting to take out infielders with a hard slide, starting to jaw at umpires, learning four new positions to help the Dodgers, bringing his burning audacity to the majors.
For a while, he wore the shackles of docility, to which he had committed, but on the field he was allowed to compete, fair and square. With bat. With glove. With feet. With head.
Black sports fans now had a new hero, excelling blatantly, in mixed company. That was something to sing about.
Sure enough, in 1949, Buddy Johnson (Woodrow Wilson Johnson, for the record) wrote and recorded a song called “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” It was soon covered by the great band of Count Basie.
Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball? Did he hit it? Yeah, and that ain’t all. He stole home. Yes, yes, Jackie’s real gone.
Because of Robinson some Americans were lifted up from our stodginess and were able to appreciate a gifted athlete and a driven human being, excelling where no player of color had been allowed since the 19th Century.
Robinson’s style even spread around baseball as black players proliferated: Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Monte Irvin, and in 1951 a wonder-man named Willie Mays, and then Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente, all of whom made the National League the powerhouse for the next generation.
Perhaps, too, Jackie Robinson served as an example for a series of begats. James Baldwin. Nina Simone. Malcolm X. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King Jr. Muhammad Ali. Chuck Berry. John Lewis. Dick Gregory. Harry Belafonte. Harry Edwards. Jim Brown. Bob Gibson. Reggie Jackson. Bill Russell. Shirley Chisholm. Barack Obama. Michelle Robinson Obama.
In 2008, I asked Rachel Robinson what her husband would have thought of the Obama candidacy.
“That is a political question, George,” she said, smiling. “And we don’t talk about politics.”
Her husband had been overcome by diabetes in retirement, and was clearly failing during the 1972 World Series, when he was introduced to Joe Morgan, the thoughtful young star of the Cincinnati Reds. Morgan was thrilled, but also stunned, to see Robinson, the man who danced off third base, now white-haired and shaky and going blind. Jackie Robinson died a few weeks later, at the age of 53.
Thirty-five years later, Morgan, a Hall of Fame member and broadcaster, was at a celebration of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. (Morgan calls Rachel Robinson “The Queen Mother.”)
I stood with Morgan and Willie Randolph, who grew up in Brooklyn, as we watched old game films of a sleek, fleet tailback for U.C.L.A. in 1939 and 1940, going wide, faking tacklers onto the ground.
Did we see Jackie Robinson carry the ball?
We exchanged high-fives at his audacity.
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