Yesterday marked the 63rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. ESPN celebrated by not showing a single baseball game, in favor of 40 episodes of Sportscenter and footage of a washed-up coach lecturing undrafted quarterbacks.
The last few years, one of my favorite games to watch all season has been the Jackie Robinson Day game on ESPN, in which Joe Morgan would talk at length with Rachel Robinson about the accomplishments of “Jack—“ as she called him—and the state of race relations in modern baseball. This year, there was a 40-second spot on Sportscenter about the lack of Black Americans in today’s game, a fact which ESPN then went on to prove that they could hardly care less about.
There were only a handful of regional games available on standard cable last night—the Reds vs. the Marlins and the White Sox vs. the Blue Jays. I tried to watch the Reds, but watching a game on TV at the Marlin’s empty indoor stadium is horribly depressing and I couldn’t make it to the seventh inning stretch.
The only televised material I’ve been able to find on Robinson is a documentary about the Dodgers organization airing on HBO next week. I wish I knew why this wasn’t a bigger deal. Football has overtaken baseball as the more popular American pastime, but Robinson’s significance is just as much rooted in American history as it is baseball history; and not even the almighty ESPN seems to understand the significance of this day. Or, even worse, they understand it and just choose not to do anything about it.
Major League Baseball commemorates the day by requiring all players, coaches and umpires to wear the number 42; the idea being that little kids watching the games will ask their dad why all the players are wearing the same number, and then get a long intriguing story about Robinson’s accomplishments and impact to baseball, sports and race relations in America. Of course Thursday was a school night and there weren’t any good games on. So good job, MLB; four little kids that were up past their bedtime now know a little bit about Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson Day needs to be celebrated later in the season, in early August when the pennant races are heating up and baseball isn’t battling the NFL draft and NBA playoffs for airtime, and when the kids are out of school; the date is irrelevant in comparison to the substance of the celebration. Have it on a Friday or Saturday, when everyone can enjoy it and the stadiums are at their fullest; the first Friday in August, for example. It’s the 21st century and it’s getting ridiculous that the government takes an entire day off work for Christopher Columbus but a television station completely dedicated to sports can’t take a few hours to celebrate an American hero who overcame impossible diversity and actually did something positive for the world. Christopher Columbus was a racist murderer, and he gets a Federal holiday. I’m just asking for a few hours on ESPN.
MLB does this all the time—not that they’re the only ones, but there’s something about immorality in baseball that makes it especially offensive. They take something culturally important and turn it into a massive scheme to sell jerseys and hats. See: Breast Cancer Awareness day (pink hats, bats, jerseys). See also: Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and July 4 (hats that are exactly the same but have red, white and blue in the lettering, armed forces camo-themed jerseys, etc).
My favorite story about Jackie Robinson is what he did to retaliate when a pitcher threw at him. He couldn’t charge the mound like everyone else because everything he had accomplished would be undone, so instead his next time up, he would drag a bunt down the first base line and draw the pitcher into his running path, and plow him over—completely within the rules of the game. A man of honor in a den of thieves, with every competitive disadvantage imaginable thrown in his face, and he got the best of them anyway. In my mind, he is the greatest Athlete in American history, for his intelligence and his incredible spirit. He was also one of the greatest pure baseball players of all time.
His love for his wife and his complete dependence on her to just survive each impossible day is one of the more underappreciated stories in American History, as is his relationship with Branch Rickey. Even while playing in the Majors, he had to stay at different hotels and eat at different restaurants from the rest of his team—while they all got filthy rich off of his talent. I got mad when they took away Facebook at work. His patience and persistence were superhuman.
Read his autobiography “I Never Had it Made,” watch the movie he starred in about his life, read up on the Negro Leagues, or just look up Robinson’s life on Wikepedia—but do something to remember Jackie Robinson. Even on the years when it’s not trendy.