When Jackie Robinson ran onto the diamond at Ebbets Field with the other members of the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup on April 15, 1947, there was nothing about the moment that allowed Robinson to blend into the familiar scene of a major-league baseball game about to start.
Every action was judged, every movement noticed, every success and failure cataloged, and every facial expression examined to determine if Robinson was up to this challenge. Aware of the scrutiny, Robinson was always careful to limit his expressions.
On that day, Robinson became the first African American to play in the major leagues since Moses Fleetwood Walker finished his one season with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. Robinson’s story has been told and retold, embellished or flattened, depending on the teller. Hollywood even moved the stirring gesture when Kentucky-born teammate Pee Wee Reese slung an arm over Robinson’s shoulder from 1948 in Boston to 1947 in Cincinnati for cinematic effect.
Doesn’t matter. The story is the story. One guy alone, doing something few would have the courage, or the talent, to do.
On Wednesday, if there were baseball in this sad spring, Jackie Robinson Day would be celebrated in every major-league park. The tradition began in 2004, and in 2007 players were given the option of wearing “42” on that day. A total of 240 players wore it that year, 330 the next, and since 2009, every player, coach, manager and umpire has worn Robinson’s number on that day.
That’s great, as far as being a feel-good nod to the distance we supposedly have traveled as a society, but the symbolism is all wrong. There weren’t 1,000 Jackie Robinsons on April 15, 1947. There was only one.
What made Robinson’s circumstance and burden so unique was its very singularity. Everyone didn’t get to be — or have to be — Robinson. He ran out of that dugout together with his teammates. But he also ran out alone. That is what should be remembered and recreated on Jackie Robinson Day.
The sense of being on one’s own for Robinson even extended to the Brooklyn clubhouse. Before the season, when it was obvious Branch Rickey intended to promote Robinson to the big club, there was a petition circulated among the Dodgers threatening to refuse to play with him. Some of the team leaders, including Reese, refused to sign, and while the petition went away, all of the sentiments did not.
“I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a [bleeping] zebra,” Leo Durocher told the Dodgers in spring training. “I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you all are traded.”
The abuse from the outside was less subtle, of course, and it’s well-documented that the Phillies — managed by Tennessee-born, Alabama-raised Ben Chapman — were the worst of the bench jockeys taunting Robinson with the cruelest of racial slurs.
During an early-season series, Dodgers second baseman Eddie Stanky, who grew up in Philadelphia’s Kensington section and attended Northeast High School, challenged the Phillies to come out and fight someone who was free to fight back. They chose not to.
Rebuked and warned by the commissioner, Chapman classified his actions as standard gamesmanship, and defended himself from charges of bigotry against Robinson by saying he also used Italian slurs against Joe DiMaggio and Jewish slurs against Hank Greenberg. Well, in that case.
Robinson endured, of course, and opened the door for others, and, hopefully, widened the doors of intolerance — heavy and creaking though they are — in the process. He was the Rookie of the Year in 1947 and the Dodgers were the National League champions. He was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1949.
Brooklyn lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1947 and lost to them three more times before beating New York in 1955 to win the championship, in Robinson’s next-to-last season. By that season, Robinson, mostly a third baseman then, was joined in the regular starting lineup by second baseman Jim Gilliam and catcher Roy Campanella, both African Americans, and outfielder Sandy Amoros, a Cuban who would have been relegated to the Negro Leagues before Robinson’s breakthrough. Don Newcombe was the team’s best starter, winning 20 games.
Two years later, the Phillies would become the last National League team to integrate. John Kennedy, whose contract was purchased from the Kansas City Monarchs, debuted on April 22, 1957, exactly 10 years to the day since Ben Chapman’s team earned its place in history by suggesting Robinson should return to the cotton fields.
He faced all that by himself, even among teammates, and even among the fewer he could call friends. He was isolated in plain sight.
That is why everyone shouldn’t be Jackie Robinson on Jackie Robinson Day. More fittingly, one player on one of the teams — maybe even the visiting team — should be outfitted differently. Perhaps an all-black uniform, with a black hat and black shoes and black socks, would serve the image best.
Every eye should be drawn to him at every moment simply because he is so jarring, so different. Every move should be magnified. Every appearance studied. That’s what it was really like. Robinson wasn’t allowed to blend into the crowd. There was no crowd. Just him.