On my reading shelf these days, you'll find Jonathan Eig's "Opening Day," the story of Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball with the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers.
I believe that more people should read about and know the Jackie Robinson story. He was an Army officer during WWII and played college football and ran track at UCLA. Jackie was a tremendous athlete in many sports, and probably would have played pro football, had the NFL not been a far distant second in popularity to baseball in those days. He was signed by the Dodgers and given a year of on-the-job training in the minor leagues and then given the first base position for the '47 season.
And you would have thought that it was 1847, not 1947, the way people reacted. Some teams threatened to boycott Dodger games. Fans in several cities, most notably Philadelphia, reacted vehemently in the stands, raining down vile verbal abuse, but in Philly, they were only following the lead of their manager, Ben Chapman, who had to be reprimanded by the commissioner of baseball for his behavior. Death threats, sent in the anonymity that often cloaks cowardice, were delivered almost daily. Every time Jackie leaned over to take a throw from another infielder, every time he strode to the plate, he had to wonder if this would be the day some nut would shoot him from the stands.
Robinson's "welcome" wasn't really much better among his own teammates. "He was the loneliest man I've even seen," said one of them who observed Jackie riding alone on trains, dining alone, and often being sent off to other hotels while the other members of the team stayed together in another.
And all this because he was a black guy.
The Dodgers chose Jackie for this onerous task because they wanted, not a man who was not strong enough to fight back, but a man who was strong enough not to fight back. It's a huge difference. But because he was strong enough to bear the indignities, both verbal and physical, heaped upon him, the entire nation progressed along with him.
Now, some 63 years later, we find ourselves watching another man break the same barriers, and still he is ill-treated, his right to be where he is is questioned, and he is the subject of vile abuse, by people who fear him for no other reason than the color of his skin. Just as in Jackie's day, they couch their hatred, wrapping it in other vestments, but it's the same thing. They said Jackie would be lazy and undisciplined, and he hustled the Dodgers right into the World Series.
But we wouldn't do that kind of thing anymore, would we? After all, this is 2010, and we're all enlightened now, right?
Cincinnati OH 1947 Hagerstown MD 2009
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they say in sunny France. The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?