'Overwhelming dignity'

By becoming a hero on the baseball field, Jackie Robinson became an icon for civil rights, says Robert Philip.

Brooklyn Dodger infielder Jackie Robinson poses in May 1952.
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"Like Jackie Robinson," the Rev Jesse Jackson told the Democratic Convention in Denver, " Barack Obama is in the situation where he can't hit back. He has to keep smiling because nobody wants an angry African-American in the White House..." For those unfamiliar with baseball or its heroes, the name might mean little but, according to Oscar-winning film-maker Spike Lee, Muhammad Ali, apart, Jackie Robinson was the most influential sportsman in history. Before Robinson, baseball was two distinct sports; the baseball of the New York Yankees and their all-white brethren, and the baseball of the old Negro Leagues.

"It was Jackie Robinson who led the black baseball players of America off the plantations. Can you imagine his strength of character, his instinct for survival, his overwhelming air of dignity? Can you begin to imagine what it must have been like to become the first black man in a sport heavily populated by under-educated red-necks? What it felt like to be a magnificent prince yet have people call you "n*****" and "boy"?

"The poet Joel Oppenheimer summed it all up pretty neatly in a few words: 'He was the classic hero. And like all the great classic heroes he carried with him one flaw bestowed by fate. He was black. And as surely as Oedipus or any of them guys, that flaw destroyed him; crippling him, blinding him, killing him at 53. But by his talents, his forbearance and his flaw, baseball was changed forever. And not just baseball; take away Jackie Robinson and you take away Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Shaq O'Neal?' "

If, as Muhammad Ali once said, "every black athlete in America should have a bust of Jack Roosevelt Robinson engraved on his heart", the player himself was always conscious of the fact that he would have languished in the anonymity of the Negro Leagues for the duration of his career but for the unwavering support, encouragement and affection of two white liberals. For seven decades or so before the Second World War, baseball's Major League owners had adhered to an unwritten "whites only" arrangement which the newly appointed commissioner, former US Senator Albert "Happy" Chandler of Kentucky, promised to smash when he took office in Oct 1945. "If young black men can fight and die for America in Okinawa and Guadalcanal, then they can play baseball in America. And when I give my word you can count on it," vowed Chandler after a vote in which the owners came out 15-1 in favour of continued segregation.

The one dissenting voice was that of Brooklyn Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, who, encouraged by Chandler's declaration, dispatched a swarm of scouts across the nation's black leagues to find a player capable of performing like an angel with a bat in his hands, and behaving like a choirboy with a glob of white man's spit in his eye. Robinson appeared a curious choice, for although he was undoubtedly blessed with greatness, he was as fiercely proud and combative as he was deeply sensitive and intelligent; how would he cope with the abomination of millions? Recalling their historic meeting in his office at Ebbets Field, Rickey wrote: "I predicted in disgusting detail the name-calling he would have to take and warned him he would have to take it in silence and turn the other cheek."

"You don't want a player who's afraid to fight back, do you?" asked a perplexed Robinson. "I want a player with enough guts not to fight back," answered Rickey. "Jackie, we've got no army, there's virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I'm afraid that many fans may be hostile. We can win only if we can convince the world that I'm doing this because you're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. A baseball result in a newspaper is a democratic thing. It doesn't tell you how big you are, what church you attend, what colour you are, or how your father voted in the last election. It just tells what kind of baseball player you were on that day."

And so on a day in 1947 described by Arthur Ashe as, "the single most significant move towards American human rights since the Civil War", Robinson pulled on the Dodgers' uniform for the first time having told his wife, Rachel, "just in case you have trouble picking me out, I'll be wearing No 42...". Others were not as enlightened as Rickey, to whom Robinson referred some years later as "the greatest man I ever knew". The reaction to Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn was as sad as it was predictable. Five Dodgers demanded to be traded rather than play alongside him - though only one would not be persuaded to change his mind - while an assistant coach at the club demanded of Rickey: "Do you really think a n*****'s a human being?"

Rather than attempt to appeal to their better nature, Dodgers' cigar-chewing manager, Leo Durocher, gathered his team around him and growled: "I don't care if the guy is yellow or black or if he has stripes like a zebra. I'm the manager of this team and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich." That he did; in Robinson's 10 years in Brooklyn, the previously hapless Dodgers appeared in six World Series but never a day went by when Robinson did not climb from the dug-out and begin the long walk out to the diamond without hearing the crack of a rifle in his mind. To the black population of America, he was the country's greatest hero. To many whites, he was a black man who aroused lynch-mob fury. "He was," noted the celebrated sports writer Jimmy Cannon, "the loneliest man I've ever seen."

Robinson refused to be treated as anything but a man. In St Louis, the last city to relent on forcing visiting ballplayers to sleep in different hotels according to skin colour, he marched in with his white teammates, filled in a registration form and demanded a room key. With that, he strolled off to bed, another taboo breached. Dodger colleague Pee Wee Reese, one of the original band of five who had been so loath to accept him in Brooklyn but who ultimately became his staunchest ally, remembers his awesome dignity every time he went up to bat. "You'd hear a lot of insults from the opposing benches, guys calling him 'n*****' and 'watermelon eater'. But that was when Jackie turned the tables. You saw how he stood there at the plate, poised like a statue and dared the pitcher to hit him with the ball.

"That was the thing about Jackie - he had all kinds of class." Robinson received a hero's burial in New York on Oct 28 1972 when the Rev Jesse Jackson led the service attended by 2,500 celebrities at the Riverside Church, Brooklyn, plus many thousands outside, ordinary men and women of all classes and colours whose lives he had touched. "Whenever Jackie took to the field," said Jackson, "something reminded us of our birthright to be free."