April 15: A special day for remembering Jackie Robinson
Editor’s Note: On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson jogged onto the field to become the first African American to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century. He made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves. Later in 1947, he was voted Rookie of the Year. Another year later, a Manhattan child named Jeff Davidson met Robinson…
In the infrequent moments that I am moved to cry, I am always caught by surprise. An evening choir rehearsal of the Mozart Requiem in an almost empty Austrian village church…a 40-year forgotten and shoeboxed letter from my father…my first homecoming chocolate malted after a decade’s absence from New York. But the one totally predictable tearful moment that rolls emotionally around on April 15 of each year is when every player on every one of the thirty Major League baseball teams lopes out onto the field blazoning number 42: the same 1947 day when Jackie Robinson, the sole player with that number on his back, stepped up to the plate in every sense of the phrase, and broke the five-decade color barrier in baseball into thousands of irreparable shards.
From that ides of April forth, baseball was no longer the semi-national pastime. The powers-that-were took a moral — and monetary — stand and decreed: Black Batting Averages Matter.
It wasn’t long after that Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in an NBA game; the Board of Education lost to Brown and black alike; Arthur Ashe won Wimbledon and the US Open; Eisenhower sent a team of 1000 paratroops from the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to help nine black students get to school on time. And, two score and eleven years later, Barack (point-guard) Obama was the number one draft pick to be the Captain of America.
Looking backward into history, we find inconceivable certain routine practices of our unpretty precursors. Society was rooted in some sort of decency-less sludge. How do you confiscate an entire piece of planet from its natives, burn alleged witches at the stake, enslave vast masses of fellow human beings, and go home to say grace and have dinner with the family?
From our perch of today, it seems equally distant and ungraspable that black soldiers by the thousands fought, and died, for the country, while the U.S. Military was totally segregated until 1948. The Negro Leagues were all that was available to professional black ballplayers for over fifty years. Marian Anderson, the contralto of the century, was prohibited from singing at the Metropolitan Opera until she was 58 years old. Seventeen hundred Los Angeles firemen threatened to walk off their jobs if any blacks were assigned to their stations. Hattie McDaniel won the Oscar for her performance in Gone With the Wind but was barred from entering the world premiere.
Long time passing.
As a cocooned child of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, I knew, I suppose, about the backs of the buses a continent away in the uncivil South, the Colored and White public drinking fountains, and something vague about who Jim Crow was. (He wasn’t.) Oh, and yes, Emancipation and the Gettysburg Address. My main point of contact with the Great Northward 6,000,000-strong Migration was our live-in maid Stella, Alabama born and whom I loved slightly more than my mother. Further among my blessing-count, I didn’t have to practice the piano at summer camp, the Yankees were five and a half games in first place, and all was well with the world.
If I can bring it up casually enough in discussion, I like to say “I knew Jackie Robinson” — which is almost, but not quite, as far from the truth as Ebbets Field was from the Eiffel Tower. But I did once stand shoulder to hip, as close to him as I could get, for a gloried forty-five minutes. He was the guest adult on a radio show I graced for some period in my pre-adolescence called “A Child’s World.” Six of us stood squeak-proof shoeless around a circular brass railing and spoke into the microphone dangling in the mid-void.
“We’re two of a kind,” he said to me. Actually said to me. I could think of no characteristic on the whole continuum of human experience that we shared, and my perplexity must have shown in my expression: “We’re both standing in our socks,“ he edified me from on high. I was very proud of that accomplishment. I still am.
By the way, I knew Jackie Robinson — did I mention?
How do you stride into a tornado and fake that it’s a light breeze?
Haven’t dealt with another like me since Moses Walker 63 years ago
In Jacksonville they padlocked the stadium to keep out the black plague
All the Redbirds – not the umpire – threatened to call a strike
The bench of Brotherly Love suggested a return trip to the cotton fields
I may have been All-American but for them I am not American at all
Middle-naming me for Teddy Roosevelt didn’t quite do the job
They ranked me Lieutenant, court-martialled me for choosing the wrong seat
God gave me this Cadillac body – but ended up choosing the wrong shade.
Leo said “I don’t care if he has stripes like a friggin’ zebra: he plays.”
Reveal to me why they want to make such a big deal about it
Not like I want to make partner, sing at the Met, run for President
No desire to be a milestone or a watershed, just want to do my job
After all they are paying me 625 dollars a month for the privilege
And they gave me easily forgettable, hard-to-make-heroic number 42
Still the tornado’s out there with 26,000 tongues hanging out.
Well, it feels like I’ve spent my whole life waiting on deck.
Stanky just grounded out to short, so here goes.
Notes On The Author
Jeff Davidson grew up an ardent bleacher-sitting, autograph-hunting Yankee fan until, at age 11, destiny and the BMT transported him to a golden afternoon’s encounter with Jackie Robinson — the once and future king of Brooklyn. Davidson’s long careers in both international journalism and the film industry have provided him close encounters with a lengthy string of celebrated figures on the various world stages. But his North Star remains that long-ago afternoon with the courageous infielder who changed baseball and American history.
Leave a Comment
Leave a Comment