These days it seems as if you can’t escape the realm of adoration for Jackie Robinson. One who is not familiar with his life may be tempted to roll his eyes at the media obsession over this man. The media tends to go overboard on everything that promotes their agenda, so naturally I am very skeptical of anyone they hold up so high. Every spring, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day, where every player wears #42 on his jersey (which is a play-by-play broadcaster’s worst nightmare). In fact, every team has retired the number 42, so that nobody can ever wear it again except on Jackie Robinson Day.
In 2013, the movie “42” was released. This is an excellent movie which chronicles Robinson’s experiences as he broke the color barrier. After watching it I further studied the subject and have developed some ideas of my own about what happened and why.
First, I will jump on the bandwagon in praise of Jackie Robinson. However, the fact that he broke the color barrier isn’t what made him special. The barrier was going to be broken anyway and it was a matter of who and when. It was how Robinson conducted himself during these difficult years that made him the legend he is today. That is why Branch Rickey picked him. Robinson had the self-discipline to absorb a lot of abuse. He had a very supportive family. He had a heart for his cause. He was an outstanding player and did not have a need for self promotion. If he had been missing one of these traits, he would have failed. If someone else had been selected for this task, such as Satchel Paige (to whom self-promotion was second nature), he probably would not have succeeded.
Now I will stay on the bandwagon and lament the fact that Major League Baseball was too blind to see the contribution that black players could make to the game for so long. Any fan worthy of the title is curious how Paige or Buck O’Neill or Josh Gibson would have matched up against Walter Johnson or Lefty Grove or Babe Ruth. Unfortunately, the mainstream culture at the time had a blind spot when it came to black Americans that we cannot comprehend today. A friend of mine suggested that it is conceivable that we have a similar blind spot in our culture today, but can’t perceive it. How will our descendants judge our treatment of Jews? Christians? Hmong peoples? the poor? Where is our blind spot?
I am going to leave the bandwagon now and comment on the conventional wisdom concerning integration and civil rights. The sources are clear on the point that Branch Rickey decided to tackle the integration issue for competitive reasons. If he could sign top tier ball players that nobody else wanted he would have an advantage over every other team in the league. This actually proved to be the case in the late 40’s when Brooklyn was consistently in the pennant race with the likes of Robinson and Roy Campanella. I don’t want to imply that Rickey was greedy. He was a devout Christian who believed the Bible’s teaching that God loves and values every man, so this was an opportunity to promote Christian values while improving the Dodgers.
Because of these factors, the integration of Major League Baseball was inevitable. If Branch Rickey hadn’t done it, some other owner or GM would have eventually realized the advantages and made it happen. This is also true of other industries. If one company refuses to hire the best man for a job due to his race, the company that ultimately hires him will have a competitive advantage over the company that refused. In this way free enterprise will always be the best way to overcome prejudices; not protests, movements, or riots.
What does this statement say about the civil rights movement in America? My assertion is that this movement was unnecessary for its stated purpose. Jackie Robinson did more for the status of black Americans in 1947 than the civil rights movement ever did in the decade of the sixties. I am not taking anything away from Martin Luther King, who was a great American Christian and whose message still resonates today. I also do not deny that political pressure during the sixties did lead to some changes. However, the civil rights movement always was and continues to be about politics, not cultural change. It takes more than political pressure to change a man’s heart and make him think compassionately about other men.
Along those lines, there is another reason Jackie Robinson succeeded where others may have failed. Robinson lived his life in a way that mainstream Americans could relate to. He was a family man. He did not ask for or expect special treatment. He served in the military during the war. He succeeded because he worked hard and took nothing for granted. He was a good teammate. Because of these traits, his teammates, and, ultimately, the American baseball fan, could not resist him for long. I think this shows us that much of what is called racism today is not actually an aversion to people of a different race. It is actually an aversion to differences in culture that are not understood or appreciated. The fact that inner city culture has little in common with the culture in flyover country contributes more to the conflicts between people in America than race does. It is unfortunate that people who control the flow of information in the United States are more than happy to blur this issue by equating race with culture, which has on many occasions incited unjust accusations and mob rule. As always, it is up to good, informed, American people to discern the difference between race conflict and cultural issues and be the voice of sanity when emotions carry lesser men away. We can learn a lot from Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.