I don’t remember who I learned about first: Jackie Robinson or the Negro Leagues. A classic chicken and egg story, since you can’t have one without the other. But it’s the first memory I have of learning about modern-day inequality. Not the slavery of my ancestors in ancient Egypt, or the slavery of early America, but horrible, racist, legal inequality that was around when my grandmother, and even my parents, were growing up. It was real, it was recent, and of course, as I got older, I learned that it is an ongoing, pervasive issue. It’s even gotten worse; in many ways, we’re going backwards.
Today is Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday. And, fun fact, it’s also Ernie Banks’ and Nolan Ryan’s birthday, a great baseball birthday trifecta. Robinson, of course, became the first African-American ballplayer to play Major League Baseball. It’s rare that you can point to a moment or person and say, “they changed everything.” But it’s indisputable that Jackie Robinson did.
There are many things I could talk about when it comes to Jackie Robinson. How he was the first UCLA student to letter in four sports: baseball, football, basketball, and track. How he could’ve been one of the best the NFL had ever seen had he pursued football instead of baseball. How since World War II, no player has had a higher career average, on-base percentage, and more stolen bases than Jackie. I could talk about how he hit, how he stole those bases, how he moved through games like poetry in motion. How graceful he was on the field and how full of grace he remained in the face of unimaginable hatred, bigotry, idiocy, and ignorance. I could fill a book, and it still wouldn’t be enough to encapsulate the enormity of what Jack Roosevelt Robinson did for our country.
Jackie Robinson broke barriers. He proved that color shouldn’t matter. And he inspired thousands of children of all races to be just like him, on and off the field. With his bat and his heart, he was exemplary. It’s why so many players wanted to wear his number before it was retired. It’s why Robinson Cano has his name. It’s why his number hangs in every ballpark across this country, even the ones that once were filled with crowds who wished he would go back to where he came from.
Today is Jackie’s 100th birthday, but the world has been without him for a long time. 47 years now, in fact, an interesting numerical parallel to his MLB debut in 1947. I often wonder what he would think of the world today. Would he be proud to see so many players of different races and nationalities playing the game he changed for them? Indubitably. But would he be shocked at the state of racial tensions in this country? Definitely. We’ve come a long way, but we can and must do more.
It is up to us to preserve Jackie’s legacy by remembering and cherishing him, but more importantly, to soldier on in his honor, by continuing to strive to be better and kinder to each other, and by working together to make this world and the game we all love more equal, welcoming, and warm places for all of us.
Photos: Getty Images archives