Jackie Robinson: More than a life well-lived

Published 10:49 am Monday, April 18, 2016

Yesterday, April 15, used to be a day of mixed feelings. On one hand it was the day to ‘pay the Piper’ by meeting the deadline for filing your income-tax return. On the other hand, it was also the day in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers integrated Major League Baseball.

This past week, award-winning PBS filmmaker Ken Burns (“The Roosevelt’s”, “Jazz”, “Prohibition”, “Baseball”) shed an unfiltered light on Robinson’s life with one of Burns’ always revealing documentaries.

It was shown over two nights in two parts. Part-one was Robinson’s athletic life from high school through Dodger fame, while the other covered his life after baseball. You might say the first part was how Robinson changed America; while the second part was about how America changed him and with him.

Robinson was hardly a saint: arrogant to a fault, as most winners are, he still swallowed more than pride in “turning the other cheek” during his rookie year when all sorts of epithets were hurled at him. Prior to that, he survived a court-martial while serving in the U.S. military.

Following life in athletics he became a businessman, first with a series of coffee-shops in New York City (Chock Full O’ Nuts) and later founding the first African-American owned bank (Freedom Bank) in the country. He noted that sports came natural to him, business success did not.

Robinson’s story may be about triumph, and that is so much a part of the American psyche. Saying Robinson broke the color barrier sounds good and presents a triumphant tone consistent with America’s ever-enduring need for hope.

But Robinson also paid a heckuva price in isolation and hurt. What did he get for remaining in the fight, when his struggle was no longer against umpire’s calls or the threat of getting spiked on the base paths? It was to be betrayed in what he’d come to believe in; beginning with hoping he could squeeze out another MVP season. As a hero to millions, those who adored him had to watch, sometimes uncomfortably, when age and his skills began to forsake him. Still fiercely competitive, he knew it was tougher to pull yet another moment of magic out of a spent body.

In 1960 he supported losing presidential candidate Richard Nixon, believing he was the best hope for black America. Eight years later, an elected Nixon wouldn’t return Robinson’s phone calls.

Baseball treated him worse: the ignominy of never once being offered a job in the game. Robinson gave the Dodger name social significance, and yet from the moment he retired until the day he died, baseball wanted very little to do with Jackie Robinson.

As his civil rights involvement grew, Robinson understood what it meant to be a “nowhere man” in America. The only recourse was to fight, even when Nixon let him down and baseball rejected him.

After he died in 1972 at the age of 53, he helped continue a fight that is still being fought today. Robinson never saw a black manager in the big leagues. Now, some 70 years after signing Robinson to a minor league contract, his old team, the Dodgers, hired an African-American manager in Dave Roberts

How also does Robinson endure: no player on any big league team will ever wear his number 42 again, except the one game every year when every player, every coach and every umpire in the majors will wear it.

In Robinson’s successes and failures, he remains the standard for the athlete and the activist. When black people in America succeed, we are channeling Jackie Robinson; someone who won some battles and lost some others, but always knew that whether vocal or silent, he could never lose.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. He can be contacted at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.