Thursday, April 16, 2015

We All Admire Jackie Robinson, But Really ...

I certainly do -- admire Jackie Robinson, that is.  UCLA man, served in WW II, fine athlete chosen by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier in major league baseball -- at least, to do so before Bill Veeck could sign a black player over in the American League.

Jackie Robinson had to have the playing ability to back up his signing (he did, as Rookie of the Year in 1947), but he also had to grit his teeth and take the verbal assault that would be expected to follow his signing -- and not fight back.  As Rickey told him, he needed to show the courage not to fight back.  And he did, all the way through the first years of a Hall of Fame career.

I write this on tax day, which is also celebrated in baseball as "Jackie Robinson Day."  Now, there were certainly greater players with greater careers than Robinson, but as a Hall of Famer with the character needed to integrate the majors, if there is to be one day in the season that just one player is to be honored, well, they could do a lot worse.

Since the latter part of the 1990s, though, when the first Jackie Robinson Day was held, baseball has taken its usual weird tack.  They didn't just retire Robinson's uniform number 42, which was a bit excessive but not terribly unreasonable; no, they directed that on each April 15th, every player would wear 42.  As I watch, out of the corner of my eye, the Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox playing their game, well, there are two lineups whose uniforms are without names and all bear the number 42.

Now, how silly is that?

I mean, let's go back to the purpose of the day, which is to honor the memory of Jackie Robinson. I certainly hope it isn't to make us resent him, but I'm already halfway there.  It's now the sixth inning, and there's a field full of 42s confusing the crap out of me.  In comes a reliever for the Nats, number -- you guessed it -- 42.  I was on the phone, or in the bathroom when he came in ... who is he?  Can't tell from the number.  Royal pain in the backside.  Who is batting?  Oh, yeah, #42 ... that would be ... oh, wait, I've got no idea!  Dang that Jackie Robinson!

If I were Jackie Robinson's ghost looking in on all this, I would be livid.  "Do you hate me?", he might be asking major league baseball.  "Why are you annoying fans in my memory?"

And the ghost would be right.  How simple it would be, if the purpose is a positive, honoring expression, to replace the stupidity of the universal 42s with a tasteful, two-minute or three-minute ceremony before the game, remembering Robinson's career.  Same speech and same ceremony at each park.  For that time, we're all remembering Robinson, which is the purpose of the Day in the first place, right?

As with so many things involving "celebrating" something about a black person, it is incredibly difficult to undo it, though, without accusations of bigotry from the race industry.  Think about it ... what does need to happen is for the new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, to announce that, henceforth, baseball will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day with a planned, uniformly done ceremony at every park highlighting his career, his courage and his accomplishments.  Announce, however, that it will no longer have all the players wear #42, for no better reason than it is distracting to the game and to the fans' enjoyment of it.

I can hear Al Sharpton now.  But he needs to shut up (well, he always needs to shut up), because the ceremony approach would be a better, more respectful recognition of the player than the universal #42 nonsense.  Jackie Robinson, a tough but very modest man, whose number is already retired, would surely prefer it, and that's pretty much what matters.

He certainly wouldn't want his memory to be an annoying one.

Copyright 2015 by Robert Sutton
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  1. Or you could have a tasteful 42 patch on each uniform, the way the Notre Dame BB team had a "Father Ted" patch to honor Theodore Hesburgh this year. There is a right way and a wrong way to do this. "We're all Sparticus" isn't appropriate for baseball.

  2. Yes, quite, Anon. There are easily five right ways to do this and no sense agonizing over which "right way" is best. Yours is equally splendid.

    I was musing this morning after posting this piece that the cost of doing all those "42" uniforms would be better served knocking ten cents off the ticket price of everyone there that day, and not spending the cost of all those uniform changes. Token gesture, of course, but at least we'd think the higher of Jackie. And I really like the "42 patch" idea.