Jackie Robinson’s Inner Strength

On October 24, 1972, Jack Roosevelt Robinson died.  Nine days prior, he declared, “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third-base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”  The setting was Game 2 of the ’72 World Series; Robinson threw out the first pitch.  Another Robinson—Frank—fulfilled the wish in 1975, when he broke the racial barrier in managing.  Cleveland, appropriately, was the site for this Major League Baseball milestone; Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he took the field on July 5, 1947 for the Indians, a little less than three months after Jackie Robinson’s first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Technically, the Dodgers’ #42 was not the first black player in the major leagues.  Moses Fleetwood Walker holds that distinction.  He played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884, his only major league season; the AA is considered to have been a major league.  In the decades succeeding, baseball’s powers that be had an unwritten yet firm rule banning black players until Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson.

The 2013 movie 42 showcased Robinson’s achievement.  He played under duress that would have broken a lesser man, but his fierce competitiveness combined with natural talent changed the minds, hearts, and maybe even the souls of those who taunted him.  “Robinson could hit and bunt and steal and run.  He had intimidating skills and he burned with a dark fire,” states Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer, the legendary chronicle of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers.  “He wanted passionately to win.  He charged at ball games.  He calculated his rivals’ weaknesses and measured his own strengths and knew—as only a very few have ever known—the precise move to make at precisely the moment of maximum effect.  His bunts, his steals, and his fake bunts and fake steals humiliated a legion of visiting players.  He bore the burden of a pioneer and the weight made him more strong.”

42 depicts a scene lifted from real life involving Ben Chapman, the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager.  During a Phillies-Dodgers game in 1947, Chapman hurled taunts at Jackie Robinson that were more vicious than any fastball.  Mr. Robinson suffered them.  Again and again.  Bench jockeying was one thing, but Chapman’s version was laced with venom the likes of which most people had ever witnessed.

Branch Rickey saw Chapman’s hatred as an asset, uniting the Dodgers behind Robinson, who acceded to having his picture taken with Chapman upon Rickey’s request to cool possible media heat of Chapman’s remarks.  In his autobiography I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson elaborates his view of the Chapman incident.  “Privately, I though Mr. Rickey was carrying his ‘gratitude’ to Chapman a little too far when he asked me to appear in public with Chapman.  The Phillies manager was genuinely in trouble as a result of all the publicity on the racial razzing.  Mr. Rickey thought it would be gracious and generous if I posed for a picture shaking hands with Chapman.  The idea was also promoted by the baseball commissioner.  I was somewhat sold—but not altogether—on the concept that a display of such harmony would be ‘good for the game.’  I have to admit, though, that having my picture taken with this man was one of the most difficult things I had to make myself do.”

Vincit qui patitur is a Latin proverb meaning “He who endures will conquer.”

Jackie Robinson endured.  Jackie Robinson conquered.

A version of this article originally appeared on www.thesportspost.com on April 16, 2013.

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