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MLB is having its annual Jackie Robinson Day amid historic protests

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73 years after Robinson broke the color barrier it’s time to do more than wear the number 42

Dodger’s Infielder
Jackie Robinson circa 1945
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On or around every April 15 I go to a baseball game to watch the league honor Jackie Robinson. It is never quite the same experience, but it has also never been enough. This year Jackie Robinson Day is being celebrated today, August 28, the 75th anniversary of the day Robinson first met with Branch Rickey to discuss the possibility of integrating Major League Baseball. By some mix of luck, fate, circumstance, planning and destiny today is also the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington and both events are occurring amidst historic protests condemning police violence and brutality against Black people — protests that earlier this week spilled into baseball after the Milwaukee Bucks and Brewers decided they would not play Wednesday night.

Baseball is not a particularly progressive sport and I don’t know that I ever thought I’d see a team strike for any non-labor reason in my lifetime. To watch as 10 games have been postponed and dozens of players and managers have used their platforms to affirm the Black Lives Matter movement has been nothing short of remarkable, even as some teams, including the Cubs, have not risen to the occasion. This moment before the Mets and Marlins did not play last night was particularly compelling:

I have written this piece before and I have tried to be as nuanced as possible. Given the space we find ourselves in now, today I’ve decided to be blunt: MLB has a long way to go on race issues. 73 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier front offices are too white, and as Black baseball players have begun more candidly telling their stories of being Black in America this summer it is clear why the protests and marches continue.

In my previous articles on this topic I have often referenced this exceptional piece of writing by Mike Royko about the day Robinson debuted at Wrigley Field — the only major-league field left where Robinson played. It was the largest paid crowd in Wrigley Field’s 116-year history. (Still is, in fact.)

I want to highlight two different parts of that piece today:

All that Saturday, the wise men of the neighborhood, who sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside the tavern, had talked about what it would do to baseball.

I hung around and listened because baseball was about the most important thing in the world, and if anything was going to ruin it, I was worried.

Most of the things they said, I didn’t understand, although it all sounded terrible. But could one man bring such ruin?

Ruin.

Terrible.

That is the environment Robinson played in when he debuted at Wrigley on May 18, 1947 and throughout his career. The hate and fear so stagnant in the air that a child could feel it. It would not get better when he stepped on the field:

But two things happened I’ll never forget. Robinson played first, and early in the game a Cub star hit a grounder and it was a close play.

Just before the Cub reached first, he swerved to his left. And as he got to the bag, he seemed to slam his foot down hard at Robinson’s foot.

It was obvious to everyone that he was trying to run into him or spike him. Robinson took the throw and got clear at the last instant.

I was shocked. That Cub, a hometown boy, was my biggest hero. It was not only an unheroic stunt, but it seemed a rude thing to do in front of people who would cheer for a foul ball. I didn’t understand why he had done it. It wasn’t at all big league.

Notice that even as Royko calls out the incident as unheroic and intentional, he does not name the player. I obviously have no idea what was in Royko’s mind as he wrote that passage, although I have some hunches as to what prevented Royko from calling out his childhood hero almost 30 years after this incident. It seems like one way we could honor Robinson better now is to be fully honest about these moments. To sit in the discomfort of transparently recognizing the racism of our childhood heroes.

Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, narrated this poignant short film that MLB Network unveiled today about her father’s career and the current moment:

To be honest, we should all spend today listening to more voices like Sharon’s, reevaluating our relationship with race, society, and yes, even baseball. Among the the pieces you should read today that are far more compelling than anything I can add to this conversation is this exceptional letter to Jackie Robinson from the always brilliant Shakeia Taylor:

Honestly, Jackie, while we’re here I may as well tell you that the League hasn’t done much to change since your playing days. Every team has retired your jersey number. Every year there’s a league-wide celebration of your barrier breaking debut. But they don’t really do much to uphold your legacy. The annual celebration has become more and more about the league celebrating itself instead of reflecting on how they still regularly contribute to racism. The number of Black American managers is so few. The number of Black Americans within organizations and in the stands is abysmal. The number of Black Americans playing the game is dwindling, although, the number of today’s prospects do offer a glimmer of hope. While no small part of me yearns for optimism for their futures in the league, reality–both recent and long past–dictates a more uncertain, troubled outlook. Not because of anything the players themselves have done or not done, but because the culture of the sport is so toxic. The owners, the commissioner, front offices; they’re all complicit in making the day-to-day experiences of non-white players incredibly difficult.

I have no idea what Jackie Robinson Day will bring today in baseball. I have a lump in my throat anticipating the Cubs taking the field, or not, later tonight in Cincinnati. As Taylor eloquently pointed out in her piece it feels like we are somewhere near the beginning of the middle of these conversations rather than anywhere near the end.

MLB likes to put the number 42 on gear, giveaways and even a studio at their flagship network. I thought the Mets and Marlins did a better job honoring that number with 42 seconds of silence yesterday. I, for one, will be putting the the number 42 on donations to organizations like Lost Boyz that work to make a difference in Black communities. I challenge you to find a similar way to tangibly honor Jackie Robinson’s legacy today.