I know the NBA playoffs are in full swing, and Derrick Rose and the Bulls are annihilating the competition, but I just wanted to take a brief moment to talk about baseball. Before you yawn and press the little “x” in the top right hand corner of your window allow me to explain the importance of this post. Far too often, in sports and popular culture we let myths persist until they become etched in American public memory. Today I want to personally take the opportunity to put an all too tired sport’s myth to bed. Jackie Robinson was not Martin Luther King Jr. and Branch Rickey was not Abraham Lincoln.
Baseball is not only America’s pastime; it is a game in which the line between myth and reality is constantly blurred. The fabrication and sensationalization of players, managers, owners, and events has become a staple of the game itself, so much so that truth is often difficult to unravel. Some stories have been told and retold so many times that they don’t need citation. One of the stories that have become a fixture in American discourse on race relations is how Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson breached the color line in organized baseball. The romanticization of this historic even has blown up Branch Rickey to Abraham Lincoln like proportions, insofar as historians have constructed this event to be purely about racial healing with no regard to the business of baseball itself. Branch Rickey, like Bill Veeck and other White owner’s decision to sign Black players was not necessarily predicated on breaking down racial barriers, but signing the best players to help the franchise win games. Additionally, Robinson has been historically portrayed as pacifist whose penchant for “turning the other cheek” helped break down the insurmountable walls of injustice.
Legend has it that Charles Thomas, a black Ohio Weselyan baseball player, was barred from staying in a hotel with his teammates because of Jim Crow laws. Rickey circumvented this law by allowing Thomas to stay on a cot in his room. Allegedly in 1903 Rickey vowed to one day break the color line in baseball because he was so hurt by seeing one his players mistreated. This story may make for a compelling narrative, but it surely defies historical accuracy. Between the years of 1903-1945 Rickey never made a public statement condemning the color line baseball. Moreover, there was never an utterance of discontent from him about the segregated seating at this home stadium in St. Louis. Rickey, the mastermind behind the farm system eventually, had no problem finding good talent. Rickey signed Robinson after a long tumultuous battle of social protest, that lasted in 10 years of struggle by progressive sportswriters.
Just like Abraham Lincoln has been etched in history as the good hearted soul who freed the slaves, Rickey has been blown up to monumental proportions many times overlooking the fact that has a manger, making a business decision to a get a talented player.
Similarly, Jackie Robinson himself has been constructed to appear to be a passive guy whose penchant for turning the other cheek helped him break down the color line in baseball. This was also far from the truth. In fact, before he was a famous baseball player he was a lieutenant with 761st Battalion at Ford Hood, Texas. When a bus driver ordered him to the back of the bus, he refused. His refusal led to and him being unjustly court martial where he was charged with public intoxication and civil disobedience. Nevertheless, he successfully fought the charges and won which led to him being honorably discharged.
Although Robinson refrained from any overt displays of violence or anger on the field his personal accounts state the he wasn’t afraid to spike a few shins every now and then as payback for the heckling and racism. In his autobiography I Never Had It Made he states: “I thought what a glorious, cleansing thing it would be to let go. To hell with the image of the patient black…I could throw down my bat, stride over to that Phillies dugout, grab one of those white sons of bitches, and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist.” He was also outspoken and politics, known for challenging Dwight Eisenhower on civil rights legislation and calling John F. Kennedy a “Northern Liberal” who took the Black vote for granted.
The mythology surrounding Jackie Robinson is not only sensationalized but in many instances blatantly wrong. His contributions to the game of baseball go far beyond the diamond; they extend to every nook and cranny of American socio-political life.
One of the greatest moments in the history of baseball was when Jackie Robinson stole home on Yogi Berra.