The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Jackie Robinson Day: Pros and Cons

William Tasker, who writes and publishes the always interesting “Flagrant Fan” baseball blog (you’ll see it over to the right on my blog roll) is a friend of mine, a fellow Mainer (though I left three years ago) and a knowledgeable, ardent baseball fan.  He is also one of the most fair-minded, genuine, decent people you could ever hope to know.

But that doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye on every occasion, even regarding baseball.  For example, I’m a Mets fan, and he’s not yet a Mets fan, so I’ll let it go at that.  More to the point, his post today entitled, “Debating Jackie Robinson Day,” espoused a point of view that I found myself strongly disagreeing with.

Let me make it clear that although I disagree with William’s point of view here, I never once while reading his article suspected malice aforethought on his part, nor do I believe his intentions are anything but (in keeping with the wishes of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) colorblind in nature.  In short, in no way shape or form do I for one second think that  William is motivated by bigotry.

What I’ve chosen to do here is first to republish the content of his post, then to publish my own response to his post, both of which, of course, you will also find over on his blog. So read it here, or read it there, it’s your choice.  William’s article is published in bold, and my response is published in italics.  After reading both (and thank you for that), I’d like to know your opinion of our opposing points of view, and why you feel the way you do.

Here’s William’s post:

Writing this post is dangerous as Jackie Robinson is an icon of righting a long-held wrong. And there is full acknowledgement here of Robinson’s place in history. Martin Luther King himself spoke of Robinson’s historical place in the Civil Rights Movement. There is no doubt that Robinson’s courage and the way he handled himself as the first African American in modern baseball. Every tribute that has been thrown towards the man and his actions are earned. The only question asked here is when is enough, enough?
If Major League Baseball does this every season and every player wears Number 42 one day every year, will we get immune to the meaning behind the event? Will it become passe? And just like Martin Luther King became the American symbol for the tragedy millions of American blacks who fought and suffered, doesn’t focusing on just one man take our vision away from everyone else? King did not march alone. There were many, many other brave Americans that marched right along with him. They were beaten too. They were jailed too. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. But he wasn’t alone.
Shouldn’t we have a Larry Doby Day? Doby was the pioneer in the American League. The year was also 1947. Doby did not have it any easier. His role was no less painful. Would not it be fitting for all of baseball to wear Number 14 for a day? Should not umpires have an Emmett Ashford Day? Or is this like Columbus Day where we will always remember one adventurer and not Henry Hudson and Juan Ponce De Leon?
Making this annual tribute does not feel right to this observer. It almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong. Robinson’s number is already retired around baseball by edict. He is in the Hall of Fame. There is no way his place in history will be forgotten. What he did should be taught for generations to our school children. But we do not do this for any other American. Do we? Baseball players are not asked to wear stove hat baseball caps on Lincoln’s birthday. Baseball does not acknowledge other important members of history in this way.
This writer understands that baseball has a problem. Not enough of our African Americans are drawn to baseball as a primary sport. Basketball and Football are much more glamorous to our young people. There are not enough African American baseball players in the sport, in the dugouts and in the front offices. Having this celebration every season does give such young people a day to think about. But it seems that young people are like most young people. They need current heroes to emulate, not someone who died a long time ago. Why not broaden the spectrum and make the annual celebration an African American celebration. Change it up a bit.
There is a fear in this corner that doing this the same way every year becomes mundane and at the same time  gives the appearance of forcing the event down every baseball fan’s throat. If any good meal is overcooked, it becomes inedible. Are we going to be doing this the same way for the next fifty years? It seems time to broaden the scope of our vision. Nobody is going to forget Jackie Robinson. Nobody is going to lessen his place in history if we do so. The Number 42 hangs in every ballpark. We don’t need a day every season where every player wears it.

Now here is my response, the intention of which is not to disrespect William’s perspective, but to humbly propose a different way of looking at things.

William, I love you, man, but I couldn’t disagree more. To start with, every great leader, whether we are talking about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, MLK, or Jackie Robinson, is an icon representing a particular historical time and place. We choose to memorialize them because it is clear that without their particular contribution in the right place at the right time, events would have played out very differently. Whether some people get tired of hearing about them or not is no reason to cease honoring them.

Nor is it quite enough to honor a random person (black or white) to “change things up,” because that more than anything would only trivialize the reason for the memorial in the first place. Men (and women) who demonstrate not only bravery, but who have the gift of leadership, are not just like the rest of us. Who, exactly, do you think is tired of having Jackie’s legacy “forced down their throat?” Are these people also tired of having the annual celebration of the 4th of July shoved down their throat, or are we only comfortable with holidays that allow white people to feel good about themselves? 

Larry Doby, who I’m sure was a brave man, only had 32 official at bats, and played the field only enough to record 15 total chances in ’47, so, for all intents and purposes, Jackie truly was alone in breaking the color barrier in ’47.   Also, when you say that it, “almost feels like MLB is making itself some sort of continual penance for righting an old wrong,” well, yes, isn’t that exactly the point?  And shouldn’t it be?  It was MLB, not some distant, alien force that created the color barrier in the first place, so an annual public penance seems appropriate to me.

Finally, when you argue that no one will forget Jackie, so, in effect, it is safe to move on, I have to ask you, how many Americans have already forgotten about (or have never even heard of) Winston Churchill, The Triangle Factory Fire, the Johnstown Flood, Woodie Guthrie, Jack Johnson (the black heavyweight boxer), Jesse Owens, and Moses Fleetwood Walker? The thing is, Americans are really, really good at forgetting important people and events. That’s why we have T.V., Hollywood, and Glenn Beck to shove propaganda down our collective throats. 

Honoring Jackie once per year is a very small price to pay to hold ourselves as a society even minimally accountable to one another. 

Over and out, dude.


Stylistically, I know, it’s not one of my strongest pieces, but this is, after all, just a letter.  Anyway, do you think I’m full of shit?  If so, let me know.  I always enjoy hearing from you guys.


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4 thoughts on “Jackie Robinson Day: Pros and Cons

  1. I would disagree with the notion that we are “regressing” on civil rights issues, but I would agree that we are advancing at a somewhat glacial pace. I can understand the fear that Jackie Robinson Day can become simply another tick on the calendar, not unlike how Martin Luther King Day has become (for many of us, anyway) just another day off. I think what Major League Baseball needs to do is emphasize how difficult what Robinson did was, what role baseball played in the fabric of society at the time (how many people alive today can even conceive of a time when the NFL was a niche sport, like hockey or golf?) I think that trying to make Jackie Robinson day some all-encompassing event diffuses the message, and increases the possibility of the true meaning of what Robinson’s struggle was all about being lost that much more a distinct possibility.

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful, thought-provoking reply. I think you have found the middle ground, so to speak, between what I believe William Tasker was saying versus my own point of view on this matter. No one wants this day to be just another watered down celebration that ceases to mean much over time, yet there must be a way to continue to publicly acknowledge this man’s contribution to the game, and to society in general. As for whether or not we, as a nation, are regressing on civil rights issues or not probably depends largely on your own personal experience with this sort of thing. Although the media is certainly not always an accurate barometer of the reality of this situation, there is certainly more than a dollop of anecdotal evidence to suggest that whatever progress we have made (and, of course, we have made some substantial progress), may have plateaued or peaked, if not regressed. Whatever the reality of the situation, I think many of us over forty-years old probably had hoped for a bit more harmony, or at least a bit less bickering (not to mention violence) by now.
      Your feedback is always welcome and appreciated,

  2. Kevin Graham on said:

    Bill, If you asked me 25 years ago if race was still an issue in this country, I would have said absolutely not.
    Do we need to continue to honor Jackie Robinson every year now that
    race is no longer an issue? No, let’s move on to more important stuff.
    Unfortunately race and equal rights in this country is still an issue, and has regressed back to the 1950’s.
    How does an unarmed teenager get gunned down in the street, and it takes 2 months before there’s an arrest? Instead of blaming our terrible gun laws, and the constant presence of racial tensions, people blame the hoodie and the media. We recently had a 14 year old African American in my community shot and killed while walking home from playing basketball. A caller at a local radio show that I listen to said, “That he probably deserved it.” Racism….nope…doesn’t exist.
    How can it possibly be 2012 and we are still ignorant enough to be still battling with equal rights for African Americans, women, and the LGBT community?

    Should we honor the life of Martin Luther King, and Jackie Robinson every year until we wise up as a species.? Absolutely. Should we stand up and raise our voices so that we can be heard over the constant drone of inequalty and racism in this country? Absolutely. If people get tired of hearing it, and want us to just sit down and shut up….tough. They need to hear the message until they grow up, and figure out how to treat a fellow human being.
    Kevin G

    • I have to say, Kevin, that I, too, am dismayed at the state of affairs regarding race, sex, income inequality, etc. in this country, especially since we seem to be moving in the wrong direction across the board. So I thank you for your passionate reply.

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