Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sports - Jackie Robinson

(Picture from

Today marks the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game as a Brooklyn Dodger. The civil rights implications of this event are massive but the effect this had on Baseball history and sports at large are possibly greater.

Before that day in 1947 the only sports outlet where black men were able to compete on equal footing with white men was in the boxing ring. The great Joe Louis, the major black athlete of the 30's and 40's along with Jesse Owens following his spectacular Olympic appearance, were the two black athletes who had large groups of white fans. In the African-American community both men were heroes.

When Robinson crossed the color boundary it ushered in a new era of sports heroes and changed the way all sports were played in the most fundamental ways. Records were smashed and an entire cult of personality eventually grew around the men who followed Robinson.

Just 22 years, the length of one generation, after Robinson's first game in Dodger blue, the sports heroes and legends of color were astounding. Future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Bob Gibson dominated the game. Joe Morgan, Ferguson Jenkins, Rod Carew and Lou Brock, all four of them future HoFers, were at the beginning of their careers. Stars of the day were Willie McCovey (future HoF), Willie Stargell (Future HoFer), Donn Clendenon, Frank Robinson (future HoF) and Mike Cuellar (1969 Cy Young Award winner). In Atlanta, the "City too busy to hate", a stoic Henry Aaron was quietly blasting line drive home runs with the sheer power of his wrists alone, on his way to becoming the man who is arguably the greatest and most fully rounded hitter the sport has, and may ever see.

I'm of a fortunate age for a baseball fan and amateur baseball historian. I saw two of the greatest players of the 50's era in their final years (Aaron and Mays) during the early 70's, all the while watching the business and style of the game transition into the early 80's and a completely different sport. I was able to understand at that time that a fundamental change was sweeping through the sport, a change which started in the early 70's and was inspired by events of the late 40's and early 50's.

Another sweeping change has been blowing through the dugouts for a little more than a decade, the era of the chemically enhanced player. With Barry Bonds on the verge of breaking Aaron's home run record, and Aaron showing that the legendary stoicism of his playing days is still with him, because that really is who he is by ignoring the hoopla; I look at how the sport has truly changed since Robinson's name being called on the Ebbets Field PA on this date 60 years ago. Robinson would be proud of Aaron's example and not impressed by the direction baseball has taken in the last decade.

A ripple on the pond was cast on this day 60 years ago. The pond has completely changed it's shape since that day. This is Jackie Robinson's true legacy, the man who started a sea change in baseball. Baseball has lost the path that Robinson steered toward and the loss is ours.

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