JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSON'S Hall of Fame plaque does not mention his race, nor his place in baseball history, nor his place in American history. A big chunk of the inscription deals with Robinson holding the joint record for doubleplays by a second baseman, 137 in 1951.
"I'm shocked," grumbles
author Jonathan Eig. "It doesn't speak at all to his real legacy. His great legacy was his courage, his ability to play in the face of all the challenges he faced. There was
a time when he wasn't seen as a
figure. In 1947, he was.
"He had as much impact on American culture as any black man in history. If Babe Ruth's plaque can say, 'Greatest drawing card in history of baseball,' why can't Robinson's plaque say he was 'the greatest civil-rights
figure in the history of baseball?' "
Eig has written a terrific book called "Opening Day," a tough yet
tender chronicle of Robinson's first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He pokes around in the ashes, where most myths start, accepting some, rejecting others.
If Robinson's plaque baffles him, angers him, he is not alone.
How tough would it be to rewrite the inscription to reflect Robinson's valiant struggle for equality long before Rosa Parks refused to shuffle to the back of a Montgomery, Ala., bus, years before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education?
"It's something to consider," says Jeff Idelson, public relations director at the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the man who writes the inscriptions these days. "The only thing I can think of that makes sense is that they didn't want people believing that's the reason he got into the Hall of Fame. He got in as a helluva
"There's something to be said for leaving it as is, learning the way things were done 45 years ago, for historical perspective. When it came time for me to write Larry Doby's inscription, there was no way to leave out that he integrated the American League, so it's in there."
Branch Rickey's plaque says he "brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn in 1947," which is so fuzzy, it's damn-near invisible. Pee Wee Reese's plaque says the Dodgers shortstop was "instrumental in easing acceptance of Jackie Robinson as baseball's first black performer."
That probably puzzles Eig, too. He devotes several pages in his book to digging archaeologically deep to find proof that Reese once walked across the diamond in Cincinnati to wrap his arm around Robinson's shoulders in an effort to silence racist taunts from the Reds and the fans. It supposedly happened on May 13, 1947.
"I checked all the New York
papers and nothing was written about it the next day," Eig says. "There was nothing in the
Cincinnati papers. I even checked three or four of the small papers in the area. No
stories, no pictures.
"There was a huge black crowd there that day. What I have read is that the white fans were on their best behavior.
Robinson later wrote that he was treated nicely in Cincinnati. Reports that it happened came years later. I found it impossible to prove that anything happened that day."
"It happened," says Stan Isaacs, an outstanding Newsday writer now retired and living in the Philadelphia suburbs. "Lester Rodney [the Daily Worker
columnist who campaigned long and hard for someone to break the color barrier in baseball] was there. He told me he saw it, but didn't write it.
"He said it happened during
infield practice, when the Reds and the fans were baiting Jackie with racist shouts, that Pee Wee walked over from shortstop
to where Robinson was standing and put his arm around him."
In recent years, Isaacs urged that a statue be built to commemorate the
moment, and the friendship between the players. It was unveiled last fall outside
the Brooklyn Cyclones' ballpark near
"We talked about it," says Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter. "We feel it happened, but not that Pee Wee put his arm around him. He may have touched him on the shoulder. We were opposed to a sculpture that had Pee Wee putting his arm around him. It wasn't that he
"In 1947," Eig argues, "they were casual acquaintances,
feeling each other out. I don't think they became friends till much later. And when I talked to Rachel Robinson [Jackie's widow], the one thing she told me is that Jackie had no help that first year, that no one reached out to him."
Steve Jacobson, another
Newsday alumnus, has written a fine new book called "Carrying Jackie's Torch," which describes the painful, bigoted hurdles the next wave of African-American baseball players faced. "Everyone thinks Jackie opened things up, but that isn't the way it was," Jacobson said.
And his take on the Reese-embraced-Robinson episode? "Ralph Branca was there," Jacobson says. "He told me it happened, early in the game."
"Branca says he pitched that day," Eig counters. "He didn't."
Isaacs theorizes that the inscription on Robinson's Hall of Fame plaque "reflects on the lack of social awareness in baseball land in those days."
And Jacobson wonders if "maybe Jackie wanted it that way, to let people know that he got in on his baseball skills."
"It's what he wanted," Sharon Robinson says firmly. "He wanted to be recognized as an athlete and a baseball player. He did not want to be recognized as a color-bearer. That award is not for a stand on human rights or for any accomplishments beyond the playing field."
Inductees get no input into what goes onto the plaque, not even the logo on the cap.
"That would be like showing someone the story you're writing in advance," Idelson says. "You'd never get it finished."
There is one other way to look at the plaque. Of those record 137 doubleplays, how many of them came with Robinson as the pivot man, desperately dodging a baserunner's thrashing spikes aimed at his ankles, his knees, his belt buckle?
Think about it, and you come away with an appreciation of what Robinson faced in a 10-year career, from aloof teammates, from red-necked opponents, from prejudiced fans, the Dodgers winning six pennants in that span.
Role models are in short supply. It is important to know more about Robinson, 60 years after
he broke the color line, shattering stereotypes; what he endured, what he stood for. Pay
attention at the ballpark on
Sunday when the Phillies honor the man. Then create your own tribute. Meanwhile, Robinson left us with a thought for the
"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives." Words to cherish, words to live by. *
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