April 17, 2007

Major League Baseball Celebrates Itself Celebrating Jackie Robinson Day.

Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day this past Sunday, April 15. Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in their season-opener on April 15, 1947. In doing so, Robinson became the the first Negro ballplayer to play in the major leagues since the 1880s when organized baseball tacitly agreed to bar Negro [or ‘colored’] players from its rosters.

Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut and Major League Baseball commemorated the event. Boy, did MLB commemorate the event.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Ken Griffey, Jr, who had been the first current-player to request permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to wear Robinson’s retired number 42 on Sunday, did wear 42. So did All-Stars Andruw Jones, Derrek Lee, Dontrelle Willis, Barry Bonds, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia, and Grady Sizemore; so did managers Willie Randolf, Ron Washington, and Joe Torre; so did coach Harold Baines, umpire CB Bucknor, and the entire rosters of the St Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston Astros all had planned for every player to wear number 42 and their games were rained-out.

Every playing field was adorned with the official MLB Jackie Robinson Day trademarked logo. Major League Baseball’s website had the logo as its background on Sunday and Monday. The website’s online store has a section, “Featured Jackie Robinson Day Collection Selections” for all of our JRD apparel and collectible needs. Every player who played on Sunday wore a Jackie Robinson Day patch on his uniform sleeve. They even placed Jackie Robinson Day decals on the batting helmets.

Los Angeles was the heart of the commemorations. The Dodgers held a 90-minute pre-game ceremony at the end of which Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson threw out the first-pitch(es). Bud Selig awarded the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award to Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, at a press-conference in Los Angeles prior to the Dodgers game.

Mark Newman, writing on MLB.com yesterday, referred to number 42 as “sacred”. The headlines of the articles on MLB.com echo this theme: “Sabathia cherishes wearing No. 42”; “Cameron proud to wear No. 42”; “Andruw wears No. 42 with pride”; “Anderson has deep respect for No. 42”.

Something is wrong with this picture.

It is not that something is wrong with our desire to honor Jackie Robinson. But when we need a 657-word article on MLB.com telling us how much C.C. Sabathia cherishes wearing the number, I begin to wonder. This is not a knock on C.C. Sabathia, who may be among the top five pitchers in MLB right-now. But multiple 700-word articles reporting how honored/special each individual team-All-Star feels to wear it, decals on batting helmets, and painted trademarked logos on every field are a bit much.

We might be trying trying too hard to convince ourselves.

Jackie Robinson is a hero. He is a hero in baseball where he began the process of MLB-integration. He was an outstanding player and was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He was an advocate for the inclusion of Negro League players into the Hall of Fame and for the hiring of managers of color in MLB. Playing for the Dodgers in 1947, he faced sharpened spikes on the base-paths and death-threats off of them. You bet Jackie Robinson is a hero.

Rituals like the retirement of a players’ jersey and public display of the number and name at the ballpark, anniversary commemorations, feature articles in the press, and achievement awards all serve to pay our respects to those who paved the roads on which we walk. More so, these commemorations educate our children, and re-educate ourselves, giving us models of conduct and reminders of lessons that we must often relearn.

Major League Baseball retired number 42 in honor of Robinson in 1997 and number 42 is now displayed in all 30-ballparks across the League. If there is a stadium in which it is not displayed, well, it should be. April 15 is an entirely appropriate day to remember Robinson, and the 10-year mark (50th anniversary, 60th anniversary, etc.) is a natural plateau for longer commemorations.

But decals on batting helmets and multiple 700-word articles saying the same thing seem less about Jackie Robinson and more about Major League Baseball’s marketing department.

The more MLB pushed Jackie Robinson Day with its logos and decals and ceremonies and patches, the more MLB made the day seem like it was about MLB and less about Jackie Robinson. MLB shifted the focus from the man and his achievement to the way in which MLB was celebrating Robinson. In this sense, I was less sure that MLB was celebrating Jackie Robinson in 1947 than that MLB was celebrating itself celebrating Jackie Robinson in 2007.

I write this because reading about Robinson, I have the sense that he was a man suspicious of official gestures when the deliverable fell short of that which was promised.

MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited Robinson to appear before Game Two of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati where the Reds were hosting the Oakland Athletics. Robinson resisted, hesitant to support MLB when not one African-American had yet been hired to manage. Kuhn promised Robinson that he would encourage the owners to do so and pressed Robinson to attend. Robinson did and Kuhn presented Robinson with a plaque at what was then the 25th anniversary of his debut. Robinson used the public stage to speak his truth to the baseball powers when he said, “I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

Robinson also spoke out against the marginalization of black players in Major League Baseball when he chastised Commissioner Kuhn and the Baseball Hall of Fame for its planned treatment of Negro League players. The Hall of Fame did not admit a Negro League player until 1971 when it formed a special committee, the Committee on Negro League Veterans, which selected Satchell Paige in February 1971 as its first honoree.

However, these Negro League admits would not be Hall of Famers. After all, they had not met the criteria for induction that they have played Major League baseball for a minimum of 10 years. Instead, they would be honored as part of a new exhibit in the Hall for the contributions of Negro League players.

Robinson protested this arrangement. The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Memories and Dreams, in its May-June 2006 issue, reports Robinson as having said, “If the blacks go in as a special thing, it’s not worth a hill of beans. It’s the same rotten thing all over again. They deserve to be in it, but not as black players in a special category. Rules have been changed before. You can change rules like you change laws if the law is unjust.”

Robinson might have wanted to be hanging out with Billy Williams on Sunday. Williams played for the Chicago Cubs and Athletics from 1959 through 1976 and was elected himself to the Hall of Fame in 1987. The Associated Press reported yesterday, April 16, that when Williams was asked about MLB and its relationship to black fans and players, he responded, “We look at the problem, read about it, talk about it and nothing much changes.”

Look at it another way – there are thirty major league teams each of which has a five-man rotation of starting pitchers. This is 150 starting pitchers. How many of these starting pitchers in 2007 are African-American? Two. Dontrelle Willis and C.C. Sabathia. When one watches a baseball game, on which player does the camera focus the most attention? Yup.

It took Major League Baseball 15-years before it hired its first African-American coach, Buck O’Neil in 1962. It was not until 1975, three years after Robinson passed away, that Frank Robinson was hired as the first black manager. Today, where do we stand? There are two black managers, one black general-manager, and zero black owners.

It is a lot easier to celebrate ourselves celebrating Jackie Robinson than to celebrate Jackie Robinson.


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