Apr 15, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Washington Nationals players are all wearing (42) in honor on Jackie Robinson day prior to a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Every April 15, we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. A holiday indebted to the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. While honoring this great legend of sport, do not take for granted what his legacy means 66 years later.
Every player taking the field marked with the iconic “42” upon his jersey as a salute. No names, no recognition except that for one day a year, they may all be the same, equal in everyone’s eyes. Each celebration is marked with joy, remembrance and dedication to a man who just wanted to play baseball. Albeit, a black man in white baseball.
You all know the story, there are biographies, history lessons and biopics dedicated to the story of Jackie Robinson. What I would like to share with you, is a story about what Jackie Robinson’s legacy means to me, a white man from Dallas, Texas.
It is not about black and white anymore. It is not about right and wrong. It is about baseball.
The game is an art form. It is the one true love that will forever leave its mark on my soul. But very rarely does one man, a legend maybe, leave its mark on this beloved game.
That is what Jackie did. To me, Robinson changed the world. Baseball certainly changed, but the world took notice. The “Great American Pastime” accepted its first African American. Therefore, how could the world not accept?
But it opened the doors for so many more. Sports, way before American Society, opened their arms and hearts to the Black Athlete that day, and for generations to come.
Apr 15, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Lyle Overbay (55) stands on the first base bag with a Jackie Robinson Day plaque before the first inning of an MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Just four years later, Chuck Cooper became the first African American to be drafted by the Boston Celtics. Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black man to sign an NBA contract when he inked with New York in the 1950-51 season. And Washington’s Earl Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA game.
Canadian Willie O’Ree made his first mark on the NHL in 1957 becoming the first African American to lace up the skates. O’Ree remarked about comments being much worse regarding his race in the U.S. than in Toronto or Montreal.
Charles Follis is widely believed to the the first professional African American in football when he signed a contract to play for the Shelby Blues in 1904. We probably don’t hear much about him because, well, not much was documented in 1904.
My favorite player growing up was Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. There was something about his style that made me fall in love with baseball. His competitive fire was awe-inspiring. Without Robinson, baseball would have never opened its doors to a Puerto Rican player.
Nowadays, baseball players reach from across the globe. Yu Darvish hails from Japan, Elvis Andrus came to us from Venezuela. Nelson Cruz first fell in love with baseball while growing up in the Dominican Republic. Others call Cuba and China home. Some, like Justin Morneau, call Canada home. Mike Piazza claimed to be Italian. Even the top prospect in baseball, Jurickson Profar, is from The Netherlands.
Without Robinson’s influence on baseball and the world, these players probably wouldn’t be here. It made sports more competitive. It made the world more accepting knowing that the guy who helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the pennant was a black man. You have to root for him.
I, like everyone else, was a big Michael Jordan fan. I didn’t care that he was black. He played the game better than anyone I had ever seen. He was also my grandfather’s favorite player. That coming from a man who grew up in New Jersey and was able to see Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella play.
My grandfather was slightly racist. But when it came to sports, he didn’t see color. He saw talent, he saw winning.
That is what Jackie Robinson did for the sport. He made people believe in the athlete and not the color of his skin. He made it about baseball, about winning.
Robinson was instrumental in the fight for equality, not in the courtroom or in the streets. Jackie’s fight was on the diamond. Jackie’s fight transcended sport as we know it. It changed generations of sports enthusiasts. And most importantly he taught us that the only color difference was between the home and away uniform.
As we continue to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, remember what it means to truly celebrate Jackie. Watch baseball, and appreciate that the sports world would never be the same if it weren’t for that man.