I’ve been thinking a lot about baseball this week. It was 61 years ago on April 15, 1947 that Jackie Robinson played his first baseball game for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the color barrier was breached in our national pastime.
I grew up near Los Angeles. My father was a big Dodgers fan–he still is–and he passed it on to me. Dad called in sick to work on opening day in 1962 in order to attend the first-ever game played at the new Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine (he still has the program from that game). I grew up with a transistor radio–quietly tuned in to the Dodgers–playing beneath my pillow at night when my parents thought I was asleep.
I’ve grown up watching baseball as a reflection of our society. In recent years that reflection has too often been one of greed, disloyalty, and winning at all costs (Yankee salaries, steroids, etc.). It won’t always be that way. And it wasn’t always that way.
Jackie Robinson was a winner on and off the field. He impacted baseball as no one else ever has or will. He also impacted American politics, civil rights, and business. One special connection I feel to Jackie is that I was born seven years to the day after he trotted out to first base for the first time in a Dodgers uniform to face the Boston Braves and strong reactions–both negative and positive–of people throughout our nation. He made a giant step on the path toward dismantling Jim Crow that spring day.
I received a birthday gift a few years ago. The book is called Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America, written by his daughter Sharon Robinson. It’s written for young people, but it’s a book for all ages. Though many biographies have been written about Jackie, this one has the special connection to his family.
Baseball provided many lessons for me about fair play, sportsmanship, and right and wrong. The story of Jackie Robinson was one of the first I remember learning regarding race in America. Sandy Koufax taught me that oppression and discrimination come in many guises. I remember the uproar when Koufax wouldn’t pitch the first game of the 1965 World Series because it was scheduled on Yom Kippur. I was eleven years old and my respect for Sandy was set for life.
My favorite book about my favorite Dodger–I will admit that as a boy I wished my parents had named me Sandy instead of boring ol’ Tom–is Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, by Jane Leavy. He pitched for the Dodgers in a time when we still believed what our President said and there were no “closers” in baseball. Pitchers went the distance. This book intersperses the story of Koufax’s life–including what it meant to be Jewish; blacks and Jews identified with each other as persecuted minorities–with nine innings of a single game: September 9, 1965. It was on that day that Koufax faced exactly 27 batters and not one of them reached first base. It was a perfect game.
Baseball continues to reflect our values as a nation. As goes baseball, so goes America. Baseball isn’t the only example that mirrors America (television and movies, the tenor of political debates), but it is one that has impacted my life.
I’ll close with a wish for more tolerance, more justice, more truth. Jackie Robinson once said, “A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.”