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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jackie Robinson and the Age of Heroes

The Baseball industry is noting the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game as a Dodger, April 15, 1947. I was almost 4 years old, and don't remember it.

I remember as far back as 1950, when I was seven. I dimly remember watching on our little Crosley t.v. as the Dodgers lost to the Phillies of Robin Roberts, Curt Simmons and Richie Ashburn, the Whiz Kids. I remember names like Gene Shuba, Gene Hermanski, Rex Barney. I remember crying and my fifteen year old brother consoling me about the loss. There would be another year, he told me with his wisdom borne of the disappointments of his childhood. He remembered 1941, 1947, 1949, all years the Dodgers won pennants, and lost to the Yankees in World Series.

I bitterly remember the “next year”I had waited for, hearing the Bobby Thompson homer in 1951 on the radio coming from one of the apartments. I had run home from school to see the end of the game the Dodgers were winning, as I knew from reports all during the school day. But my mother was out shopping, and I couldn’t get into our apartment. So I sat in the dark hall alone, listening to the end and crying again. Once more, there would be more summers.

There were wonderful summers, when the Dodgers were always winners, and losing to the hated Yanks in the fall. Boyhood should be a time of superlatives, of legends, when every hero seems unbeatable. And they seemed to be.

There was Gil Hodges, who was so strong he could grind sawdust from the bat. Jackie, who drove pitchers crazy at first base, and always stole home. There was Furillo in right, the Reading Rifle, and his arm was strong enough to throw runners out at first on solid hits off the big wall in Ebbets right field. There was Campy behind the plate, a rock who runners crumbled into when sliding home. There was Pee Wee, Erskine, Labine, Newk.

And of course there was Duke, who roamed center field with a loping grace and whose golf swing powered so many homers. Was he really better than the legends to the north: Mays and Mantle?

I remember seeing the enemies who came to town: Musial, Klu, Aaron, and those who visited the Yanks on channel 11: Ted Williams, Rocky Colavito, Nellie Fox.

By the time I was fifteen, it was all over --my Dodgers and my childhood.

In my memory, even today, the events are mixed up, the cause and effect confused. Did the end of the Brooklyn Dodgers signal the end of my boyhood, or did the interests of adolescence end my belief in heroes?

Now I am old, far older than my father was when I was a boy. The old heroes are old men or gone. They are in the Hall of Fame, barely alive in record books, their numbers overtaken and forgotten. They are part of the legends of the game, alongside my father’s heroes.

None of this seems to matter to my son’s generation. Despite my faltering efforts to instill a feeling in him for the history of the game and the magic of the heroism, he feels nothing for the game.

Most of what we remember about the glorious past was attributable to the illusions of youth. I often look back at those days and wonder whether they really were heroic, or whether they merely seemed that way due to my naivete and the natural tendency of old men to deride the present. I suspect that the good old days usually were good only because we were young.

But sometimes I think that they were better days, when hope was high for a bright future. We saw the game as symbolic of something happening in society, and looking back over fifty years, I think it did represent something.

When Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers it was a symbol of something good for the progress of mankind, not just for a game or the business of baseball, or even for the amusement or entertainment of customers. It was a step in making America a better place, a place it always claimed to be but never was and never has become.

The American claim as a land of opportunity was that talent, ability, skill and hard work could permit any person to achieve success. Class, race, religion, or personal beliefs were irrelevant or at least could be overcome with those traits. But of course, it was not true.

When I was born, in 1943, in the midst of a war against fascism, the vaunted America dream was for only Christian white males. My uncle, a Jewish veteran, was rejected by medical schools because the “Jewish quota” for students was filled. It was an open and accepted fact of life. And for Negroes it was far worse. Segregation, Jim Crow laws, race riots, lynchings were commonplace aspects of American life.

I heard an older Black athlete say that Jackie Robinson’s importance was in providing a role model for young Black boys and men who could hope to attain greatness following his lead.

It occurred to me that in my boyhood I remember him as my hero, and was only dimly aware that he was a Black man. To me he was a Dodger, and such an exciting hero of the game that I did not much notice his blackness. There was Hodges, Robinson, Reese and Gilliam in the infield. There was Furillo, Snider and Pafko in the outfield. There was Newcombe, Erskine, Joe Black on the mound. There was Campanella behind the plate. They were the good guys.

In the realm of identifying with heroes, there was an oddly imaginative conversion in my consciousness. My Dodgers were not Black and White. If anything, they were Jewish while the Yankees were Gentiles; they were working people while the pin-striped Yanks were big business; they were Democrats while the Yanks were Republicans. Of course, I see now that they were just other young men trying their best.

But there was a difference and the difference was that the Yankees had no Black men. None. That was real. The Dodgers were good because of the experiment. And the experiment was due to one man.

Branch Rickey.

He was a hero in the classic sense, in the sense of Lincoln. And Oskar Schindler -- no, that's not too much of a stretch. He was not a saint. He had plenty of human faults. He was a clever dealer in men. He was cheap, kept his workers hungry while making himself rich. But when it came to the issue of whether Black men should be permitted to share the dream of success, he knew what was right. He was courageous. And he was smart. He knew that his own success could be assured by doing what was also right. So he took the risk, at no small jeopardy to himself. He would be threatened with danger, to his reputation, to his financial success, to his friendships.

Rickey opened the country’s eyes to the wastefulness of its racism. Ten per cent of the population had been ignored for much of our history. Rickey was an enlightened capitalist, an entrepeneur who saw the huge profits in cultivating the Negro athletes. He shrewdly gauged his times, sensing that the liberalism of twenty years of government and World War II had brought black heroes into the mainstream of American life. My father thought seeing Negroes in the major leagues was a great advancement.

But when I watched the Dodgers play and imitated their batting stances and pitching motions in my livingroom and tried to walk pidgeon-toed like Jackie, I wasn't aware of any of that social impact. I accepted it as normal.

And that was the impact. My generation, beginning as kids, saw no race in our heroes. And the Dodgers of my childhood will always be far more important than any other ball team in history because of it.

You could look it up.


  1. You hit it out of the park! I particularly like the thread about the Dodgers being Jews, Democrats, working class - sports is all about tribalism, and one identifies with the team that can encapsulate our own social coordinates most perfectly. Let's go to a game next week! Max, my mom, and I share two season ticket seats to the Dodgers (faded no doubt compared to your original heroes, but still a good bunch) - let's pick a day and go!

  2. Thanks, Jem, but the prospect of driving, parking, listening to the ugh, LA fans, the wave, the beachballs, the phony "Charge!" and watching the crowds arrive in the 3rd & leave in the 8th no matter the score wounds my old school heart too deeply ... besides, they might win. The team that traded Jackie Robinson to the Giants and then moved away from Brooklyn ... the horror!

  3. wonderful post! i was searching the web the other day for appropriate reading matter to commemorate jackie robinson and found nothing but stats and generalised encomiums. but you've written a marvelous piece worthy of the occasion. and you should go to the game... just your brand of crankiness will be a fine antidote to all the phony cries of 'charge!' and waves. besides, baseball is baseball and there's still something beautiful about the game.