My Three Greatest Americans

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

#2: Jackie Robinson

No life illustrates America's profound contradictions better than Jackie Robinson's.

His was a journey between those extremes unique to our country: the injustice of having the cards stacked against you solely by virtue of your skin-color and the rewards of hard work and determination; astonishingly transformative opportunity and institutionalized racism from which we've yet to escape. They seem disparate outcomes, but Robinson's story ends in triumph and tragedy. He was a Hall of Fame baseball player, a celebrity, a tireless civil rights champion. And he was a martyr who died of natural causes.

The youngest of five, Jack Roosevelt Robinson is born in Cairo, Georgia on January 31, 1919. His father, a sharecropper, abandons the family a year later.  A grandparent had been a slave. Now Jackie is the child of a single mother in the Jim Crow South.

Welcome to America, kid.

Fortunately, Robinson's mother, Mallie, takes her children to Pasadena, California. To be sure, young Jackie encounters prejudice, but nothing like Georgia's systemic variety methodically designed to thwart African-Americans at every turn.

Mallie works various jobs, determined to give her kids a better life. In the more racially tolerant environment, their abilities soon blossom. Over a decade before Jackie makes history in Major League Baseball, his older brother Matthew, nicknamed Mack, wins the the silver medal in the 200 meter sprint at the 1936 Summer Olympics, finishing less than half a second behind Jesse Owens.

Like Mack, Jackie excels at track and field, as well as football, basketball, tennis, and baseball. His talents earn him an athletic scholarship to UCLA where he becomes the first Bruin to win a varsity letter in four sports. He breaks his brother's collegiate record in the long jump and is one of four black players on UCLA's undefeated 1939 football team (the University of Georgia, by contrast, desegregates in 1961; its first African-American football players take the field ten years later.)

It's also at UCLA that Robinson meets his future wife, Rachel. Who can say whether Robinson would have maintained his resolve without this dynamic woman's love and courageous support.


At every point in his life, Jackie Robinson fights for racial equality. Even as a kid in Pasadena, he wouldn't be intimidated: the white kids pelt him with rocks, until he starts throwing rocks back at them.

Like a kind of destiny, his arenas get bigger and bigger.

After being drafted in 1942, Robinson applies for Officer Candidate School and earns a commission as a cavalry second lieutenant in 1943. A year later, Lieutenant Robinson boards a bus at Fort Hood, Texas and the driver tells him to sit in the back, though Army posts ran desegregated buses. Jackie staunchly refuses. After the confrontation, the driver summons the MPs. A month later Robinson is court-martialed. He's eventually acquitted by a panel of nine officers, all of them white.

After his military service, Jackie plays professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. In Ken Burns' epic documentary, Baseball, Negro Leagues legend John "Buck" O'Neil recounts how his Kansas City Monarchs had been stopping for decades at a certain gas station to fill the two 50-gallon tanks of their team bus. The proprietor had never allowed the players to use the restroom. When Robinson found out, he pulled the nozzle out of the tank and told the owner: if we can't use the restroom, we'll buy our fuel elsewhere. Faced with losing the sale of 100 gallons of gas, the owner caved, though adding "don't be long in there!"

Gandhi could not have prevailed in more elegant a fashion. And as O'Neil added, now everywhere the Monarchs went, they deployed the same tactic.

With his lifelong commitment to nonviolence, Robinson achieved his most meaningful successes by changing attitudes and opening minds, winning over even some of the most recalcitrant in their prejudice. But he also took immense pride in himself as a man and as an African-American. He was, as his Monarchs teammate Sammie Haynes described him, a "race man."

And it wasn't in Jackie's character to walk away from a confrontation with dignity on the line.

But in his most celebrated achievement, breaking the so-called Color Ban which had kept African-Americans out of baseball for 60 years, he would have to master his instinct for confrontation—repress it, stifle it. Branch Rickey, the president, general manager, and quarter-owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, made Robinson promise that he wouldn't challenge his aggressors for three years.

It was the right strategy and Jackie knew it; fighting back only played into the hands of the naysayers. But he'd taken a terrible, almost inhuman oath. Now Robinson would have to ignore his acute sensitivity to racial injustice and endure in silence an endless barrage of abuse from hecklers in the stands and opposing dugouts. He'd have to swallow that immense pride. He alone would run a daily gauntlet of humiliation and intimidation on and off the field, receiving anonymous letters threatening the murders of his wife and infant son if he kept playing or promises that he'd be shot dead from the stands.

He would have to try to channel all that anger, fear, and frustration into his playing.

For a time, it seemed to work. In his celebrated rookie year of 1947, Jackie led the National League in stolen bases, led the Dodgers in home runs, and finished the season with a .297 average, helping Brooklyn win the pennant. The Sporting News named him its inaugural Rookie of the Year (they'd opposed baseball's integration only a few years prior.) Red Barber, the Dodgers radio announcer, said: "He was the most exciting ballplayer that we had and the greatest gate attraction since Babe Ruth."

All eyes were on Robinson, but not just because he was the only black player. He was electrifying, especially on the base paths. As Buck O'Neil explains:

    What happened is, Jackie took black baseball to the Major Leagues. See, at the time, baseball was a base-to-base thing: you hit the ball, you wait on first base until somebody hit it again. See? But in our baseball you got on base, if you walked, you stole second, you try to steal, they bunt you over to third, and you actually scored runs without a hit. This was our baseball.

Robinson wasn't just good enough to cut it in the Bigs, he was one of the game's very best players. In ten years with the Dodgers he played in six All-Star Games and six World Series, including Brooklyn's only championship, in 1955. He won the National League's batting title and Most Valuable Player award in 1949. And he was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.

But ten years later, Robinson is dead. He dies of a heart attack on October 24, 1972. 53 years young. He didn't smoke or drink. He was a superb athlete.

Mack, his older brother by five years, lived to the age of 85.

Those close to Jackie suspected the reason for his tragically short life. As Red Barber recalled in Baseball:

    I don't know of anybody besides Robinson who could've done what he did. Many of the black players—Reggie Jackson, for example—said later, he's the only one of us who could've done it. Robinson—Mr. Rickey told him you'd have to turn the other cheek and, as Mr. Rickey said, it wasn't long before he didn't have any other cheek to turn, it had just simply been beat off. I think—they said that Robinson died of diabetes and other things—I think he died from the load he carried.

And in one of the most moving interviews from that same segment, Sammie Haynes, Jackie's teammate on the 1945 Kansas City Monarchs, said:

    The one thing that we weren't sure—that Jackie could hold his temper. Jackie had a terrific temper. He knew how to fight and he would fight. If Jackie could hold in that temper he can do it. He knew he had the whole black race, so to speak, on his shoulders. So he just said I can take it, I can handle it, I will take it for the rest of the country and the guys, and that's why he took all that mess. And it killed him.


At the crossroads of American history sits baseball, the story of our country in microcosm. And at the intersection of baseball and America stands the figure of Jackie Robinson.

Gerald Early, the noted essayist and American culture critic, astutely observes:

    You can almost divide American history in the 20th century before Robinson and after Robinson. America was defined by baseball, this was our national game. So the drama of this moment, of Robinson coming in, is enormous, because of the game being tied to the national character, in some way the game being tied with America's sense of its mission and its destiny.

He's right. Before Muhammad Ali or Jim Brown, even before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was Jackie Robinson. His impact on sports alone would be impossible to fully quantify.

Toward the end of his baseball career—and long-since released from Branch Rickey's gag order—Robinson began openly campaigning for civil rights. After retiring, he embarked on a speaking tour of the South. His closing line at every appearance—"If I had to choose tomorrow between the Baseball Hall of Fame and full citizenship for my people I would choose full citizenship time and again"—prefigured the same rhetorical tack with which Dr. King inspired and sternly reminded America: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

His body diminished by heart disease and diabetes, his spirit weary from the maddeningly slow pace of progress in his society, Robinson sounds a despondent tone at the end of his life. In the signature passage of his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson recalls how he felt playing in his first World Series game:

    There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

And yet, Robinson wrote one final sentence; he composed his own epitaph. Inscribed in the headstone atop his grave in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, not far from where he played for the Dodgers, it reads: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Did Jackie Robinson come to embody America's profound contradictions? No, but this greatest of Americans spent a lifetime taking them into himself, absorbing them, internalizing them. And he paid the price.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2021 Patrick Walsh
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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