Jackie Robinson: A 50th Anniversary Remembrance

▪ 1998

      Nearly 54,000 people—among them U.S. Pres. Bill Clinton—jammed New York City's Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997. Although the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets baseball teams played that evening, the impressive turnout had more to do with a ball game played exactly 50 years earlier at Ebbets Field in nearby Brooklyn. That game marked the debut of a rookie named Jack Roosevelt Robinson, an African-American whose presence in the Dodgers lineup marked the first time in the 20th century that a member of his race had played in a major league ball game. The Shea Stadium crowd gathered to honour the memory of the man who had withstood taunts, death threats, and other forms of abuse from players and fans alike as he broke baseball's colour barrier and helped to spark the civil rights movement. "If Jackie Robinson were here today," Clinton told the crowd during a 15-minute ceremony, "he would say we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we could do a lot better."

      Major league baseball spent the summer commemorating Robinson's achievement. The theme was "breaking barriers," and Robinson's impact on the sport and race relations in the U.S. was celebrated. The integration of baseball had opened the athletic arena to minorities, and eventually Hispanics and Asians followed Robinson's lead. By 1959, every major league baseball team had at least one African-American on its roster; some 17% of baseball's players were black, and blacks had also been accepted in professional football and basketball. By 1997, 80% of the players in the National Basketball Association were black, as were 67% of the players in the National Football League (NFL). In baseball, however, that number had dropped to 15% by 1997. Curiously, the Dodgers opened the season with the same number of African-Americans on their roster as they had had in 1947: one. Hispanics, however, accounted for 20% of major league players.

      As Clinton suggested in his address, minorities were now welcome on the playing fields, but stereotypes and other barriers lingered. Leadership positions both on the field (catcher in baseball and quarterback in football) and off were rarely filled by blacks. Not until 1975—three years after Robinson's death—did a major league baseball team hire an African-American to be a field manager, and in 1997 only four teams had black managers. In the NFL only four blacks had ever served as head coaches, and, although 11 of the 30 head-coaching positions changed hands during the 1996 season, none went to blacks. No major sports franchise in the U.S. had ever had an African-American as a majority owner.

      As Robinson's Hall of Fame career and his place in history were recognized in big league ballparks throughout the season, a baseball team known as the Colorado Silver Bullets—the only all-women's professional team in the country—spent the summer barnstorming from town to town to play exhibition games, just as teams of blacks and players from the Negro Leagues had done during the first half of the century. The Silver Bullets served as a reminder of the fact that until at least one more barrier was broken, a full one-half of the population remained effectively banned from playing major league baseball.

ANTHONY G. CRAINE

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Universalium. 2010.

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