Today is still seven days of the omer, but my email reminds me that it’s also “Jackie Robinson Day” around the MLB, a celebration declared in 1997 by retiring his number, 42, league-wide — and then commemorated since 2004 by all players’ wearing his number in the day’s games. On April 15, 1947, Robinson walked out into Ebbets Field to help the Brooklyn Dodgers in their 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves, the first black man to play in the majors in the 20th century. My plan is to talk more about the man himself a little later down the road. (And later on in this project I’ll highlight a player from the Negro Leagues, where black players played professionally from the 1880s until the last team was shuttered in 1951.)
Since I’m writing about baseball and numbers (OK, that’s a little reductive), I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on this baseball holiday without numbers. What might “Jackie Robinson Day” mean without any players wearing the number 42?
America’s favorite past-time hasn’t ever been a progressive forum; it’s prided itself on being apolitical — though anyone with any kind of marginalized identity knows that kind of space doesn’t exist. But since professional baseball is pretty much rich white men, it can easily tell itself that story. People of color make up more than 80% of NBA players and more than 70% of NFL players, but black players in Major League Baseball are now less than 8%, down from 13% just 20 years ago. (Of course, all professional sports are majority white-owned and white-run.)
Two years ago, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones explained why he and his black colleagues weren’t kneeling for the national anthem:
We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.
A brief digression on patriotic songs played at baseball games: When I attend, I — in the words of my friend and Yankees fan Yoyneh Boyarin — do the mitzvah for the whole stadium and sit during the national anthem. People are generally still coming in and out at that moment, before the game starts, so usually no one says anything. I also definitely don’t stand for “America the Beautiful” either, that treacly tripe of a song that only began being played at games during the seventh inning stretch after 9/11. That is where I usually get some attention: At one of the ALCS games at Yankee Stadium last year, I could hear someone yelling at me to stand up during the song. I ignored him until a large (white) man came over to me and demanded to know why I wasn’t standing “for the national anthem.” Since he was even drunker than he was stupid, I told him I didn’t have to answer his question and asked him to back off. (I was pretty scared, as I usually am around large drunk men.) Thankfully, he did so, but not before throwing over his shoulder, “I don’t know where you’re from [again — stupid: I was in head-to-toe Astros gear], but here in New York we stand for the national anthem.”
But back to racism: Jones’s indictment is scathing but true. “Baseball is still very white. The people who are in power are almost all white — and the cultural forces behind baseball are too,” writes Alvin Chang in this excellent Vox article.
MLB’s efforts to honor Robinson’s achievements (which, honestly, often come off more as efforts to tout itself) are admirable, but like MLK Day, April 15 has come to be a celebration of a sanitized version of its eponymous hero. Robinson — like Jones, like King — always knew what was up. He wrote in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had it Made:
Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama, and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Robinson was chosen to break the color barrier with the specific agreement that he not fight back against any racism that he would encounter — something that didn’t come naturally to him. His refusal to move to the back of a nonsegregated Army bus in 1944 almost got him court-martialed. Against the backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement, Robinson “viewed his sports celebrity as a platform from which to challenge American racism. . . He set the standard for athletes to protest social injustice,” Peter Dreier wrote last year on the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s birth into a sharecropping family in Cairo, Ga.
As recently as 2017, MLB was still missing opportunities to take racism seriously (ah, yet another ignominious distinction for my Astros). And during this season’s supension it’s certainly missing another chance: While an average MLB team is worth almost $2 billion dollars, each one has set aside only $1 million for its stadium workers — many of whom still haven’t seen any money, and many of whom are contractors and not eligible for it in the first place. If MLB really wants to honor Robinson’s legacy, right now would be a good time to heed other words in his autobiography:
Until every man can rent and lease and buy according to his money and his desires; until every child can have an equal opportunity in youth and manhood; until hunger is not only immoral but illegal … until that day, Jackie Robinson and no one else can say he has it made.
But to end on a little of an upnote, here is a complication of a few clips of Robinson, set to Count Basie’s “Did You Ever See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?”
featured image: Getty (showing MLB players wearing Robinson’s number and . . . wait for it . . . standing for the national anthem)