Jackie Robinson at bat, 1949. Photo: Frank Bauman. Courtesy of Museum of the City of New York. The Look Collection. Gift of Cowles Magazines, Inc.
Last month, Jackie Robinson would have celebrated his 100th birthday.
To honor the player who broke the color barrier of America’s pastime by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, The Museum of the City of New York (Fifth Avenue between 103rd & 104th Streets) and the Jackie Robinson Foundation are presenting “In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait of a Baseball Legend,” now through Sept. 15, 2019.
The exhibit features Look magazine photos of Robinson and the Dodgers, many never before seen images from the Museum’s own collection, as well as memorabilia and rare footage of the Robinson family, for a comprehensive portrayal of this groundbreaking figure.
Of all his accomplishments — becoming the first African American in Major League Baseball, receiving the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year Award, winning the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, his All-Star status for six consecutive seasons from ‘49 through ’54, playing in six World Series and contributing to the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series championship, and being inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962 after an exceptional 10-year MLB career — the most inspiring thing about him was how he carried himself as the sole black man in his profession.
When he moved from the Negro American League to one of the Dodgers’ farm teams, the manager asked that Robinson be reassigned to another club affiliate (GM Branch Rickey refused the request). Jim Crow laws in the south meant Robinson was not allowed to stay in whites only hotels or eat in restaurants with his teammates. Baseball fans hurled racial slurs at him along with their soda bottles. And some fellow ball players refused to play with him. He also received death threats.
“Back in the days when integration wasn’t fashionable,” said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., “[Robinson] underwent the trauma and humiliation and the loneliness which comes with being a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom.”
Prejudice has not gone away. Not a day seems to go by without reports of a racially motivated or anti-Semitic crime, an attack on someone in the LGBTQ community or discrimination of a disabled person or woman who dares to want to do a job held traditionally by men. It’s not unusual to want to seek revenge and show perpetrators “you’re mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.” But this can often turn the victim into the victimizer. More satisfaction can come from doing things Jackie’s way.
Through all his travails, the second baseman adopted a turn the other cheek policy, facing his adversity with dignity and grace. He never lashed out at his tormentors, choosing instead to focus on doing his job. And what a job he did.
During his career, Robinson played in 1382 games, had 4877 at bats, 947 runs, 1518 hits, 137 home runs, 734 RBIs and a batting average of .311.
Because everyone loves a winner, after a while even his critics cheered him on.
In 1997, MLB retired his uniform number 42 across all major league teams; he was the first pro athlete in any sport to be so honored. On April 15, 2004, MLB also created a new annual tradition, “Jackie Robinson Day,” on which every player on every team wears 42.
Robinson also was the first black television analyst in MLB and the first black VP of a major American corporation, Chock Full O’Nuts. In the 1960s, he helped establish the Freedom National Bank, an African-American-owned financial institution based in Harlem, New York.
He died October 24, 1972, at age 53, in Stamford, Connecticut, after which, in recognition of his achievements on and off the field, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Jackie Robinson’s legacy left us many things, especially that when people try to marginalize you, get your bat (figuratively, not literally) and swing for the fences. To quote the British poet, George Herbert: “Living well is the best revenge.” Or better put by the gracious Robinson, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author of the novels “Fat Chick” and “Back to Work She Goes.”