Jackie Robinson’s athletic talents were wondrous, enabling him to earn letters in four sports at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). But his courage and fortitude were more bountiful. Against formidable odds, amid a backdrop of widespread and deeply rooted racism, he broke Major League Baseball’s notorious “color barrier” in 1947.
A second baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson became the first African-American player to take the field in a major league game that April 15. He was taunted by opponents, some of whom tried to injure him during games, and by opposing fans and even a number of Dodgers supporters. Initially, some teammates did not want him on hand, either.
He showed remarkable restraint, though, fighting back not with his fists but his fleet feet and lethal bat. Robinson excelled for 10 full seasons in the majors, batting a career .311 and becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He retired in 1957 then became a significant player in the budding civil rights movement.
Seventy years since his Dodgers debut, there is a general perception that race relations have improved significantly nationwide. In many ways they have. But an ugly set of incidents in Boston recently undermines that perception.
Adam Jones, star outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, said a number of Fenway Park fans fired racial epithets at him during a May 1 game against the Red Sox. Someone, he added, flung a bag of peanuts at him.
“I was called the N-word a handful of times tonight,” he told a USA Today reporter following the game. “Thanks. Pretty awesome.”
Jones said he had been subjected to this type of verbal abuse before at Fenway, but this was among his worst experiences. It happened in a city that has something of a checkered past with race, and with an MLB team that was the last to integrate in the pre-expansion era. Pumpsie Green joined the Red Sox in 1959, two years after Robinson retired.
Team officials and Fenway fans, to their credit, responded quickly and appropriately. The peanut bag thrower was ejected from the stadium that evening and Red Sox president Sam Kennedy apologized and promised stepped-up security the next day. Spectators the second night cheered Jones lustily when he stepped in to bat for the first time.
The jeering of Jones occurred at a bad time for Major League Baseball, which is struggling with racial diversity. There are few managers and general managers of color, and even worse, African-Americans comprised a mere 8.3 percent of the players on opening-day rosters. There were only 62 African-Americans on the 30 rosters, an average of two per franchise.
Jones is proud of his heritage and displayed that pride last week when he donated $20,000 to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Cynics would say he could easily afford that, yet it was a commendable salute to the players of color who preceded him, but were prevented from competing in the big leagues.
People like Jackie Robinson, a superstar in his one Negro Leagues season, a future MLB superstar – and a superstar in life.