We’ll All Wear Number 42
Bigotry runs deep and wide in our country. At least that’s the opinion of most Americans. In a May 2013 Pew Research poll, 88% of blacks and 57% of whites surveyed believed that there was discrimination against African-Americans. In a July 2013 Rasmussen poll, 37% polled said that they believe black Americans are racists. Nearly half of those who identified themselves as Republicans and 31% of blacks who participated believed that this was the case. There are a number of race relations questions in a Gallup poll here. While some of the answers don’t exactly tie out with each other, the responses don’t give the impression that many of these respondents also don’t believe that we’ve reached a post-racial America.
Each April 15 since 2004, Major League Baseball has commemorated the league’s first black ball player, Jackie Robinson with pre-game ceremonies and other activities all around the league. Robinson broke the color barrier April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. MLB has retired number 42, which Robinson wore on his uniform; none of the teams are permitted to issue that jersey number to its players. An exception is made once a year, April 15, when every player on every team wears a jersey with number 42 to honor Robinson and the sport’s start towards integration. Branch Rickey, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time, was out ahead of most, even the US military. It wasn’t until a year later when Harry Truman issued the country’s first order to treat all servicemen equally and the last all-black unit wasn’t disbanded for another six years, in 1954.
It couldn’t have been easy for Robinson. As we all know, his new status as a professional baseball player wasn’t easily accepted by fans or players, even some of his own teammates. Integration made many very uncomfortable and some were quick to show their displeasure. Things as they were, I think he lasted only because of his skills as a baseball player and his contributions to the Dodgers’ success. It seems that his fortitude and strength of character, as admirably as we now view them, wouldn’t have carried the day on their own. Race matters were just too tense for things to work out for him as the first black player if he hadn’t outperformed white players on the field.
A round of applause for MLB for the honor they show Robinson and their recognition of his baseball accomplishments and civil rights activism. With almost every game of the season now a marketer’s “special event” of one sort or another, let’s set one aside to recognize a great man and those around him who paved the way towards a pastime for all Americans, no matter their race or ethnicity. I like the idea and get a kick out of seeing every one of the players, managers and coaches wearing a jersey with number 42. Never one to miss an opportunity, MLB will make sure we all feel included. For $275, you too can wear #42. Step right up.
However, MLB stumbled on its San Francisco Jackie Robinson event this year. The Dodgers were in town and Vin Scully was here to take part in the festivities. Scully has announced Dodgers games since 1950. He knew Jackie Robinson and he was in the booth for the games played by those great Brooklyn Dodgers teams. So you’d think MLB would make sure that the biggest of the celebrations, which included participation from the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Robinson’s family, would be held in San Francisco. Nope. That was saved for New York, a market that is three times bigger than the Bay Area. Funny how those things work out. Too bad for MLB that the Yankees game was rained out.
One of the joys of listening to Vin Scully announce a game is hearing his many stories. While in San Francisco, he told us about a death threat against Jackie Robinson in a game at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in 1951. I’ll let you hear it from him directly.
It wasn’t until 1959 that there was a black ball player on all the MLB teams. Some of the sport’s best joined during those first few years. Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks all started their careers in the 1950s. But some things change slowly. Almost thirty years after Robinson’s debut, Aaron received many death threats when he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s home run record. They were ugly and frequent.
Periodically, the hatred surfaces in these high-profile sports leagues. This time, it’s the NBA’s turn. Eighty percent of the players in the National Basketball Association and more than a third of its front office are black. The NBA is a money-making machine that looks a lot different than it did when Chuck Cooper, Nat Clifton, Bill Russell and other African-Americans first joined in the 1950s. Some of the league’s highest profile representatives are African-American and they have worked hard to appeal to everyone with an interest in the sport and to fill the stands. However, they are now faced with an awkward moment of their own making with the social media buzz buzz about Donald Sterling, an owner of one of the teams, instructing his girlfriend not to post photos of herself with “minorities.” He also told her not to bring one of the league’s biggest celebrities and beloved, Ervin Johnson, to “my games.” Yes, the guy doesn’t want Magic Johnson at “his games.” I have little interest in the NBA and even less in going to a game. But you don’t need to be a fan to wonder how can it make sense for someone who owes a great amount of any wealth that he created from his ownership of a NBA team to not embrace the man? Many will tell you that it was Johnson and Larry Bird that breathed new life into the NBA when it needed it the most. If this guy is guilty, he’s not only a bigot, but delusional as well.
I don’t know the man, except for what we’ve read the past couple days. And I’m not inclined to dig into the details of why a twenty-something woman is spending time with a married wealthy man who will soon be seventy years old. I can hardly spell TMZ, the name of the scum chasers who broke the story. So for now, I’ll leave it to the insiders. Most of the people in a position to know these things are advising the NBA Commissioner to sanction Sterling severely or to run him out altogether. I haven’t seen many rushing to his defense. The players on the team he owns wore their warm-up jerseys inside out to hide the team name and wore black uniform accessories during a Sunday playoff game. That’s just a nominal protest, but I’m sure there is a lot of anger and disgust to go along with it. NBA royalty guys such as Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Charles Barkley are looking for swift action from the NBA. Veteran sports guy Bryant Gumbel says that record is clear and that he is “surprised that anyone is surprised.” Gumbel says that Sterling’s views are an open secret and he lays the whole mess at the door of the league’s management, as they have known for years that he’s no good. I’m all for it if the story is true. Find a league rule that penalizes him with a significant financial loss and then show him the door.
Let’s again remind ourselves that we once looked for a post-racial America. Celebrate the notion with Vin Scully’s call of Jackie Robinson stealing home plate in a 1955 World Series game between the Dodgers and Yankees.