NOTE: Each year, April 15th is celebrated as Jackie Robinson Day, a tribute to a great athlete and great American. That day in 1947 marked Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball as the first Black player–amid threats against his life.
We are being challenged now by efforts to prevent schoolchildren from learning about Jackie Robinson, his accomplishments and the adversities he faced both on the baseball field and thereafter. Thus, it is imperative that we continue to tell his story and nurture his legacy.
I am reblogging a post I ran on April 16th, 2022, with an addition: interviews that MSNBC’s Joy Reid did with Robinson’s son David Robinson and Della Britton, the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, at the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City. The segment contains Robinson himself making a controlled but powerful statement about his decision to lend his support to peaceful civil rights protesters who were under attack.
Whenever I see an essay bearing Doug Glanville’s byline, I know I should set aside the time to read and savor it.
I’ve written about Glanville several times and carried one of his pieces here and a video here. A friend of my older daughter’s since childhood, he is an extraordinarily gifted person: former baseball player for the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies; current ESPN MLB (major league baseball) analyst; author; educator about the intersection of race and sports; and a lovely human being who seeks justice for Black Americans and harmony and dignity for all people.
Not surprisingly, Jackie Robinson, a cultural icon because of his athletic excellence and dignity in the face of horrendous racism–and the good works he accomplished well beyond his sports career–is one of Glanville’s personal heroes.
His lengthy and eloquent tribute to Robinson, “Why Jackie Robinson’s story still resonates 75 years after his MLB debut,” is fascinating for any number of reasons, and I hope you’ll read it.
I’m singling out just a few of the anecdotes from this essay. In the first, Glanville presents Robinson’s effect on his own four children.
“FIVE YEARS AGO, during one of my eldest daughter’s first Little League games of the season, I noticed her bouncing around at first base on each pitch. It was clear she was imitating someone, and given the only game she’d seen me play in at the time was the Hall of Fame game when she was 3, she was definitely not copying me.
“She proceeded to steal a base every chance she could.
“When pressed to explain her sudden love affair with stealing bases and aggressively advancing on every pitch, she dropped one name:
Glanville explains that he and his wife had decided it was important for their children to see “42,” the film about Robinson, preparing them in advance for the ugliness that the pioneering ballplayer faced.
“The movie resonated, as demonstrated by my daughter’s mimicry on the diamond. All of my kids would become fans of Jackie Robinson the baseball player right away, but it was just as important to my wife and me to tell them the story of the complete Jackie Robinson. The figure who testified in court, marched on the streets, opened a bank. Jackie Robinson wanted equality to mean an open door for anyone to play baseball — or to do anything else.
“Robinson spent his later life weaving his impact into other areas of American life. He had no intention of stopping progress at first base, and his post-baseball efforts became an extension of his Hall of Fame career, hitting the conscience of the board room, the political elite and the institutions of power, including MLB.
“When he retired, the line he crossed was not a finish line, but a starting one. His integration of baseball was an early domino in the civil rights gains that would come later, and even without a bat in his hand, he was part of those, too. This fuller picture of Robinson helps frame how he remains significant 75 years after he broke into Major League Baseball: It was the kind of change that reverberates and endures.”
Glanville then talks of Robinson’s impact on him as a Black child who loved baseball. He moves on to his first meeting with Robinson’s widow, Rachel, when he was a 20-year-old ball player. Seven years later, his relationship with Robinson’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, began when he was playing for the Phillies and joined her in a “Breaking Barriers” campaign to educate young children about Robinson’s life in order to encourage their own educations.
“The opportunity was surreal — it took me some time to absorb what it meant to be a representative of Jackie Robinson, to know that his daughter would share my story with the next generation … to know that I had become a part of their story.”
That relationship became a friendship, and Glanville recalls with delight his friend Sharon’s conversation with his daughter:
“A few years back, the two of us had been playing phone tag, and she happened to call back when my eldest daughter was in the car. So they had a conversation. For me it was a mind-blowing experience — listening to them talk about gymnastics and their childhoods, two daughters of big leaguers sharing notes. I just got out of the way.
“In that moment, for my daughter, Jackie Robinson went from history to family.”
The story he includes from Sharon Robinson’s book Stealing Home bears repeating in any tribute to this great American. Here is her recollection of the icon as Dad.
“It was Dad’s official job to test the ice on the lake to determine its safety for skating. We kids lined up along the shoreline and shouted words of encouragement as Dad proceeded out onto the snow-covered ice. Before he placed one big foot in front of the other, he would tap the ice with his broomstick. After what seemed like forever, Dad would reach the deepest part of the lake, give one last tap with his stick, then turn to us and call out: ‘Go get your skates!’ I thought Dad was very brave.
“Now I think it even more. He was as brave then as when he entered baseball, a feat it took me years to appreciate. It dawned on me only gradually what it had meant for him to break the baseball color line, the courage it took for him to enter uncharted, and dangerous waters. He had to feel his way along an uncleared path like a blind man, tapping for clues. That was Jackie Robinson. And that was my dad — big, heavy, out there alone on the lake, tapping his way along so the ice would be safe for us.
“And he couldn’t swim.”
Doug Glanville worries that with time, the important American story of Jackie Robinson’s life may be forgotten.
“THE PARTS OF Robinson’s story that endure are universal examples of what we all seek from the world: relevance, respect, inclusion, fairness. Robinson did it with grace, fire, exceptional talent and a message that sought equality for all.“
Now, more than ever, we need to be reminded of Jackie Robinson’s story. And Doug Glanville has done so beautifully.
Please watch this brief video, which contains footage of Jackie Robinson explaining why he felt compelled to join the fight for civil rights in the American South. And Della Britton describes Robinson’s credo of economic empowerment: “The ballot and the buck are the two most important things for the advancement of my community.”
4 thoughts on “A Few Truly Special Jackie Robinson Stories–Reblogged, With a Timely Update”
I was eight years old when my father took me to see Jackie Robinson’s first appearance at Ebbitts Field in an exhibition game against the Yankees. We were Yankee fans, but my father let me know how important the day was Is is tragic that there are those who would try to erase that memory from our history. Make your kids and grandkids watch the movie”42”. And don’t let anyone mess with your library.
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Thanks so much for this comment, Bob. It’s great to hear from you—and your message is one that can’t be repeated often or strongly enough. Best regards.
“And he couldn’t swim.” It was against the law in the South to teach a “colored” to read or to swim. Reading opened the idea that freedom is possible and swimming could provide escape from the dogs. They know what they are doing is wrong. They know that slavery was, is and always will be evil. Fear is their only tool and brave men like Jackie are their nightmares. Mr. Robinson with the help of Branch Rickey made them face these fears in the colosseum where fear cannot hide. I can’t say that I’ve ever taught someone to read but I have taught many young men to swim and have seven who had the discipline, courage and desire to achieve beyond, that went into deep water and swam a mile with me when I tried to act the leader.
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Thanks for adding those pertinent historical notes about both swimming and reading, Richard. The more people know about—and understand the implications of—the systemic causes of conditions that still plague Black communities, the more difficult it will be to prevent our redressing them at last.