Today is Jackie Robinson Day. It’s a very important day in baseball. Every player will wear the number 42 to honour the great Dodgers’ second baseman and on every broadcast of every game, the networks will regale us with tales of the heroism and courage and fortitude of Robinson as he became the first black player to play in the Major Leagues.
I have yet to see it, but last Friday saw the release of “42” into theatres, starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford. The major motion picture is the first to depict Robinson and so far the reviews have been mostly positive. Most say it’s a tad Hollywood, but it’s a movie made for mass-market appeal—expecting something else is probably foolish.
Still, the Jackie Robinson story is an immesely important one to tell. It’s an important turning point in baseball and as is so often the case, sports mirrors our culture. The breaking of baseball’s colour barrier no doubt helped along the fledgling Civil Rights Movement which at the time was still in its relative infancy.
Unfortunately, there are many parts of this story that fail to be told by Major League Baseball or the mainstream media.
For one, although Robinson was the first black player to play in the Major Leagues post-segregation, forgotten are the scads of black players who played professional top-tier baseball pre-segregation and how many of them faced the same vitriol (and even worse, in some cases) as Robinson did. There’s also the fact that mere days after Robinson made the jump to the Majors, many other black players followed, such as Larry Doby of the Clevelands and Dan Bankhead, a pitcher who played alongside Robinson on the Dodgers. Although Robinson was certainly more of a star than either of those two players, their complete lack of mention when talking about the integration of Major League Baseball is sort of appalling.
But the biggest omission in the Jackie Robinson story has to do with the more structural role of racism in the 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond in the United States. As humans, we like tidy narratives that are easy to explain and retell. For the sake of storytelling, black and white (no pun intended) is always better than grey. There are good guys and bad guys and probably the good guys win—after facing some adversity.
Unfortunately, nothing in life is that easy. It’s easy for us to watch the players on our TV screens don the number 42 for one day in a touching tribute to an important figure in baseball history, but it’s hard for us to fathom that some of the most horrendous institutional racism to take place in the United States, took place after Robinson broke baseball’s colour barrier. Even as black athletes began to make strides, black people as a whole were struggling and fighting every day just to enjoy the most basic equality offered to nearly every white person.
Robinson himself was a crusader in this fight. For all the “turn the other cheek” narratives we hear about him, Robinson dedicated his post-baseball life to fighting for his rights in the Civil Rights Movement—often being seen standing beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He became a fervent critic of the American government and the oppression they continued to lay upon black people. He was often heard talking about the structural barriers that continued to exist that kept black people from ever reaching their true potential and asked that his story not be used as a case study in the abolishment of racism—because he understood what it really was: An individual aberration that was allowed to exist in a culture that was built upon bigotry.
This, of course, doesn’t fit in with the narrative the mainstream has built around Robinson. The narrative captured by the Branch Rickey quote in the movie, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with the guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson, it turns out, was fully willing and able to fight back—a necessary action against the extreme state and cultural power that continues to exist to this day. In order to do Robinson justice on the day dedicated to him, it’s important to acknowledge the broader structural elements at play and not allow the corporate mainstream—whether it be in the media or in Major League Baseball—to whitewash the story. It’s also important to note that Robinson himself was uncomfortable with the idea that people wanted to focus on him individually. He wanted people to focus on the structural importance of truly eradicating inequality.
We tend to view stories like Robinson’s as evidence that we’ve somehow overcome bigotry, and although obvious progress has been made, there is still an undeniable prejudice that exists in modern Western society.
Take the argument outside of the realm of race, and suddenly it’s clear how much further we still have to go. There are no active out-of-the-closet gay athletes in any of the four Major North American men’s sports. The role of women in Major League sports is appallingly low and a dominant culture of sexism is so prevalent, that the link between rape culture of jock culture is on full display on a seemingly every day basis.
It’s important to remember this today when you watch baseball and see the number 42 all over your screens. Yes, it’s important to honour the achievements of Robinson—but it’s also important to remember what he really stood for: equality—something we’re not even remotely close to achieving 66 years after Robinson played his first game with the Dodgers.