(Writer’s Note: I originally wrote this a couple of years ago for a weekly feature I do during the baseball season for 14 KVOE Emporia. I stumbled across it today and wanted to share it with everyone)
Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day around the Major Leagues and it’s great all these years later that Robinson is honored for his grace and courage in handling a situation that could be both difficult and even dangerous at times. Robinson’s number “42” has been retired by all Major League teams in honor of not only his legacy that he has left with the game, but also for what he stood for. Sixty Five years ago, Robinson appeared in his first game, the first man of African American descent to suit up for a Major League team. Integration was not popular back in 1947, and he was treated accordingly. But for all that Robinson did(and he truly was the right man at the right time), there are other men that roamed the fields in the Negro Leagues for years that deserve praise too, even if they might have never played for a Major League team.
Larry Doby is the first to come to mind, the first African American to play in the American League. Doby debuted for the Cleveland Indians just eleven weeks after Robinson, but is largely forgotten. Doby incurred the same indignities that Robinson did, with nowhere near the media attention and implicit support.
Another man was Satchel Paige, a man who played twenty one seasons in the Negro Leagues and is considered by some to be the greatest pitcher in Negro Leagues history. Paige would make the big leagues in 1948 and played six seasons in the Majors.
Who can forget Josh Gibson, maybe the greatest power hitter ever, if only the Negro Leagues had kept statistics all those years ago. Gibson never made it to the big leagues, but nonetheless is still a member of the baseball Hall of Fame.
Hank Aaron is one of the greatest of all time, but Aaron had to deal with insurmountable pressure back in the 1970’s as he approached Babe Ruth’s all time home run record. Aaron even received death threats but pushed on to break the Babe’s record, only to eventually be toppled by Barry Bonds back in 2007.
The list could go on and on. Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, and Smokey Joe Williams are all players that never received their just do. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier was for those players. Robinson not only broke a color line that needed to be broke, he also excelled and turned it into a Hall of Fame career.
One last person should be mentioned if we are giving credit. Branch Rickey, then the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the man who not only signed Robinson but also believed that Jackie was the right man for the job. Rickey once told Robinson, “I know you’re a good ball player. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.” Robinson then asked Rickey, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey shot back, “I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.”
Jackie Robinson Day has been celebrated for years in the Majors and for good reason. It is not only celebrating a special part of baseball history. It is celebrating a man who did something no normal man would have been able to do. For that, we thank you, Jackie.