Jackie Robinson Day is a day to celebrate, and a day to mourn
One of the nice things about being a baseball fan is that April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day instead of Tax Day. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first major league game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In my class on the history of baseball at SF State, I devote about four lectures to this remarkable breakthrough. I’m a good storyteller, and there are some phenomenal stories in these early years of integration. The best description of what it was like to be Jackie Robinson is in Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had it Made which is a book I heartily recommend.
My friend and mentor, Jules Tygiel, wrote Baseball’s Great Experiment which is a very good read and is rated by Sports Illustrated as one of the best sports books of all time. Jules created the baseball class at SFSU, but he passed in 2008 from pancreatic cancer. I think of Jules often, and I miss him. Another interesting book is Roger Kahn’s recently-published Rickey and Robinson. Kahn will always be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and his hatred of Walter O’Malley knows no bounds. In an effort to drive a stake through the heart of O’Malley, Kahn tarnished the memory of Jackie Robinson near the end of his book. Critics ripped him for that, but it is a pretty honest telling of the story of Jackie Robinson. Be sure to check out all of those books if you’re interested in some different perspectives.
We can argue about who belongs in the Hall of Fame and how steroids tainted records, but we should all be aware that the Hall of Fame is built on falsehoods. Cy Young holds the record for most wins by a pitcher with 511, but Satchel Paige claimed he had over 2000 wins. Babe Ruth is generally acknowledged as the one of greatest home run hitters of all time, but we’ll never know how many home runs Josh Gibson would have hit against major league pitching. Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson should have been trying to break the records of James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, not Billy Hamilton.
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It is a sad, but true fact that all of baseball’s most cherished records are inaccurate. We will just never know who the greatest players of all time really were, because African-American players never got a chance until 1947.
Most of the time, baseball reflects national trends, but in 1947, Major League Baseball made history with Jackie Robinson. Baseball should be proud of being a pioneer in racial integration. So all across baseball today, players will wear the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson and to celebrate this extraordinary achievement. This is a good and a just thing to do. Jackie Robinson was truly a remarkable man who faced incredible racial prejudice and hatred. We should celebrate his life and his victories.
It would be good for baseball to remember, however, the sixty years of the color line that kept the best players out of baseball. The reality is that baseball would have been a much better game, and even a better game today, if African-Americans had been included all along. So let us celebrate Jackie Robinson and all that he accomplished. But let us also mourn the fact that baseball owners and players were so blind and intolerant that there had to be a pioneer to break the color barrier in the first place.