This week’s retrograde is dedicated to Jackie Robinson as well as Larry Doby and others (including Pee Wee Reese) who paved the way for equity in baseball. I’ve always tried to imagine what that culture shock was like for Jackie Robinson, going from California to the south and then into the Negro Leagues. I think when we try and imagine being in someone else’s skin, in their shoes, we try to compare it in some way to shoes we wear in our own lives. And, while this can never replicate another’s experience, sometimes it helps us to at least connect in some way and feel united with to the universal humanness that binds us to the other. Oneself as another, as the philosopher Paul Ricouer writes.
For me, I think about my father when he was being deployed to Germany in World War II. That involved training at Fort Bennington, Georgia. At 18 and coming from San Diego, California—my father had no idea about “colored” bathrooms until the MPs pulled him out of one and threatened to jail him should he enter again. They pointed out the signs, and where he “belonged,” and in stunned silence he walked in the “correct” direction; until he died, I don’t think he ever got past the shock of that experience.
Fast-forward: It’s 1968, and I’m 6 years old and experiencing my first summer Olympic Games on TV. John Carlos and Tommie Smith win Olympic medals, and at the medal ceremony they raise their fists in the black power symbol that was part of the civil rights movement. And then, as you know, they had their medals stripped and were ordered to leave Mexico. I remember seeing that and asking my parents, “Why did they take their medals? I thought everyone had free speech.” I think my parents’ response was perfect: “All people have free speech, and we cannot explain to you why it was OK for their medals to be taken.” In my mind, this translated as: Everyone has free speech, but that doesn’t stop people from doing mean things when people use their free speech.” ( I also never had be taught what symbolism was in an English class after that point.) I’m so thankful that I had parents in 1968 who didn’t defend the Olympic committee.
I love Jackie Robinson Day. He and Branch Rickey are heroic archetypes that have been inside of me through my life. Because of them, Roberto Clemente was one of my idols, and I cried when he died. Not only was he a great player, but he was a great model for what a true citizen is: One who gives of himself to help others. So connected to these ideals through my baseball heroes, this is why baseball moves me. This is why baseball is not JUST a game.
So to honor Jackie Robinson in this edition of RetrOgrAde, let’s share some memories in the comments below of our favorite players of color, past or present, and how we connect with them, how they move within us and through us thereby showing, ultimately, why we are thankful that Jackie Robinson made it possible for us to connect with them, oneself as another.