Brooklyn Boro

Guest Editorial Opinion: Jackie Robinson the giant

September 23, 2015 By Lynn Marie Honeywill Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Should Brooklyn have a bigger Jackie Robinson statue? The above statue of Brooklyn Dodgers Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese sits at MCU Park in Coney Island.
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I can see it my mind’s eye: Soaring several stories high, a sculpture of Jackie Robinson, the renowned African-American baseball player. Bestriding a grass-green pedestal, the bronzed colossus towers over the baseball diamonds scattered around him, fields busy with children and adults playing ball. Jackie’s strong, handsome face is eternally turned to watch the action of the ball; his powerful body ­­­­­is poised to spring into one of his famous base steals.

This giant memorial emerged in my mind one day years ago as flipping through TV channels, I came across a public-television program featuring the story of Jackie Robinson, who desegregated Major League Baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Only a giant-sized figure seemed big enough to represent the man who rose so high to surmount the lofty barriers set before him, because desegregating the major leagues turned to be a Herculean mission, suited more for a soldier than an athlete.

Jackie was forced to play through a gauntlet of opposition and harassment, including death threats against him and his family. He endured antagonism from inside and outside the league. Some of his own teammates rejected him, some competitors racially taunted him, and many so-called baseball fans were demonstratively hostile. Amazingly, he didn’t respond in kind, despite the enormous provocation. And he didn’t let his suffering show on the ball field, as I witnessed in the program’s newsreel clip. 

As the old newsreel rolled, I saw baseball stands crammed with spectators screaming abuse at Jackie, who acted oblivious to their vicious behavior. As they reviled him, he dashed toward the next base, then darted back, teasing the pitcher until he succeeded in stealing yet another base. While the crowd’s faces twisted in hatred, Jackie’s face and athletic movements exuded the joy of playing ball.   

Awestruck at his courage, I wondered how he could perform so well amidst such horrific abuse. As I watched, Jackie seemed to grow in stature until he towered above the hateful clamor. Likewise, the worse these “fans” behaved, the smaller they shrank. Eventually, they didn’t matter anymore, like ants screaming at a giant’s heel. Embarrassed at their tiny insignificance next to the giant that was Jackie Robinson, their voices fell and they crawled away.

Jackie the Giant remained on the field. And then he stole another base.

Through heroic self-control combined with his athletic feats, Jackie Robinson triumphed over discrimination and hatred. In a parable told on the baseball diamond, he embodied some of this nation’s finest values and ideals.

Jackie fought back only by playing very fine ball. He was named MLB Rookie Player of the Year and later the National League’s Most Valuable Player. He racked up impressive performance stats, including a league record for home-base steals. And he helped the Dodgers seize six National League pennants and the World Series.

Of course, Mr. Robinson shouldn’t have had to endure such mistreatment just to perform so well in the major leagues. But when he joined the Dodgers, he accepted it on condition that he promised to play through the expected racial harassment without retaliating. The Dodgers president and general manager, Branch Rickey, told him not fighting back would be the price he would have to pay to integrate baseball at that time, not just for himself but for all African-Americans. Jackie kept his word to Branch, but it was a bitter work for him. A strong-minded man whose natural character was to directly confront racial unfairness, he had even faced court-martial during his U.S. Army service when he refused to obey a bus driver’s illegal order that he move to the back of a bus on an Army post. Jackie was in the right and the Army acquitted him. 

It should also be remembered that Jackie and Branch sought identification and apprehension of those making death threats against Jackie and his family after he joined the Dodgers. At a different and later time, both men obviously would have refused to tolerate any racist behavior at games.

After Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” and Major League Baseball became further integrated, Branch released him from the promise that obligated his self-imposed silence. Jackie’s natural outspokenness then reemerged on and off the field. Indeed, for the rest of his life he further revealed his soldier’s heart by braving opposition and controversy to speak out on civil rights and other issues affecting the African-American community, as revealed in his autobiography “I Never Had It Made.” He also remained determinedly fair-minded toward other races and ethnicities.

Jackie’s later years were burdened with diabetes complications, and he was just 53 when he died in 1972. Some believe that the stress he underwent while desegregating baseball took a physical toll that might have contributed to his later health problems.

More than four decades after his death, Jackie Robinson’s heroism on the field under extreme duress still calls for a symbolically fitting memorial, not so much to posthumously honor him but rather to inspire us, particularly young people, with his extraordinary example. This lofty tribute would recognize important African-American history while also serving as a timeless encouragement to people of all backgrounds who endure unfair opposition in their fields of life. And if this figure were erected in a park with amateur baseball fields, players of all ages could look up and be inspired by one of the biggest athletes of them all.

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Lynn Marie Honeywill is a freelance writer living in the Baltimore, MD area. She has long been inspired by the life and feats of Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers.


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