Jackie Robinson was the first black ballplayer in the Major Leagues. By all accounts, he was an exceptional athlete and an even more exceptional human being. As a junior Robinson won the Pacific Coast Negro Tennis Tournament, and both in high school and in college he starred in football, basketball, baseball and track. In 1939, at UCLA, he was one of the first four black players on the football team, and in 1940 he won the NCAA men’s long jump championship. In 1945 Branch Rickey, the General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, offered Robinson a minor league contract, on the condition that Robinson would be able to withstand the inevitable racial abuse that would be directed at him. Until then Robinson had always shown a strong sense of justice when confronted with racism, and he asked Rickey if he was ‘looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back,’ to which Rickey responded that he needed a Negro player ‘with enough guts not to fight back.’ That convinced Robinson to accept the offer, and after a year with a minor league team he was called up to the majors, seven days before the start of the 1947 season.
From the beginning of his Hall of Fame career, first in the minors and then in the majors, Robinson was confronted with vicious racism, on and off the field. He was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates, and training facilities were often closed to him. One Florida police chief threatened to cancel practice games if Robinson was on the team, which forced Rickey to temporarily remove him. But in his only year in the minors Robinson was named his league’s Most Valuable Player, and his ascent to the majors was inevitable. On the field, Robinson took abuse from players on both his own team and the opposing team, as well as from the public. Some Dodgers players initially refused to play with him, until manager Leo Durocher threatened to trade them. Opposing players and managers tried to take him out with dirty plays and taunted him with racial slurs when he was at the plate. To none of these attacks and insults was Robinson allowed to respond, and if it wasn’t for the support he received from some of his teammates, most notably Pee Wee Reese, he might not have lasted eleven years in the majors.
At the end of his career Jackie Robinson had amassed amazing numbers: a .311 batting average, 1,518 hits, 137 home runs and 734 runs batted in, but also seven All-Star selections, one Most Valuable Player award, and one World Series Championship out of the six he played in. He went on to become a corporate Vice President and a broadcaster, but the mistreatment he had experienced had taken a physical toll on him, and he died of various ailments at the age of 52.
It is not hard to see the similarities between Barack Obama’s and Jackie Robinson’s careers, especially now that Obama is fighting a new bout of GOP racism in his attempt to get a Supreme Court Justice confirmed. From the first day of his presidency Republicans have denied its legitimacy and tried to erase Obama’s achievements, as if there never was a black president.
Just like Jackie Robinson Obama cannot respond in kind and has to show formidable restraint, but also just like in Robinson’s case eventually he’ll end up in the political Hall of Fame, and his racist opponents where they belong, on the garbage dump of history.