Baseball and Brooklyn Dreamers
When the nation needed transformational magic, two unlikely, yet quintessentially American institutions, baseball and Brooklyn, found a sharecropper's son, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, to do it. Hidden in the hearts of both Brooklyn and baseball is a quixotic everyman's idealistic dream of a fair playing field where anything is possible. Baseball was America's unchallenged pastime where hopes and heroes were currency, and Brooklyn was always a place where a large fraction of America's internal transplants and foreign immigrant sons and daughters, including my parents, could fall in love and place their bets on the future. Kings County is the place of uncompromising big dreamers like Georgia born Jackie Robinson. Other Brooklynite successes include Shirley Chisholm, Rudy Guiliani, Walt Whitman, Mae West, Harry Houdini, Spike Lee, Vince Lombardi, Barbara Streisand, Michael Jordan, Carl Sagan, Aaron Copland, Judge Judy and Frank McCourt.
If G-d had to find a place for evil Jim Crow to get his first real butt kicking, scrappy Brooklyn -- not Washington, Manhattan, Cambridge or Montgomery -- would have to be the place. Ever since George Washington lost one of the first major battles of the Revolutionary War there, it would continually be a place for the righteous indefatigable underdog to eventually triumph.
Both Brooklyn and baseball needed Jackie Robinson, and so too did America. It is ironic that something as seemingly trivial as baseball (at least to heartless sports atheists) could be the conduit for such magnificent change.
But why not? While I could never quite prove it I think G-d prefers wholesome athletes like Robinson, Winfield and Clemente to preachers, lawyers, and politicians -- with the probable exception of Dr. King, Pope John Paul II, my rabbi, Thurgood Marshall, Gandhi, and... no real politicians I can think of.
More elementally, neither America nor baseball could have any legitimacy when they deprived the dreams and opportunity of their children. Baseball is a barometer of America itself, weathering westward expansion, wars, economic changes, scandals, and demographic diversification. But at its core, baseball, like the nation that gave birth to it, is about aspirations; to teamwork, sportsmanship, merit and fair play. Jackie Robinson, himself noted, "The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time."
Jackie Robinson was by all accounts a phenomenal athlete. At UCLA he was the first to achieve varsity status in four different sports. In the majors his handsome physique and graceful, yet motivated play on one of the great teams of the era made him even more of a standout. He had 197 stolen bases, including home plate. The Hall of famer and six time all star had a .311 batting average with 1518 hits. He led the league in batting in 1949, when he was also the National League's Most Valuable Player. He was named Rookie of the Year his first season. But in this segregated era before Brown v. Board and the Voting Rights Act, he was subject to threats, injury, harassment and incredible cruelty. Dodgers' General Manager Branch Richey told him:
Jackie, we've got no army. There's virtually nobody on our side. No owner, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans may be hostile. We'll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I am doing this because you're a great ballplayer, and a fine gentleman.
The civility of his response transcended sport to make Robinson a pioneering part of the Civil Rights Movement, lauded by Dr. King himself. He received both the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Congressional Gold Medal.
That fine gentleman achieved something very few athletes ever will: immortality, both on and off the field. Robinson, Ebbets Field and the Brooklyn Dodgers see play now only in heaven, grainy highlight reels, the movies and the gentle hearts of now grown little kids of all races. Just off of Flatbush, they listened in awe to their grandfathers' glorious stories of a mythical underdog team that finally beat both racism and the undefeatable Yankees, with a stolen home base, in 1955. It was Brooklyn's only World Series victory, in seven glorious games, just before the far away siren of California lured them away, never to return. If Jackie Robinson's courage, talent and perseverance could land him victory in the majors and life, little boys and girls of all races could now be big dreamers too. I'm taking my sons to the movies this weekend. They don't call it field of dreams for nothing.