“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
This is the epitaph on the gravestone of Jack Roosevelt ‘Jackie’ Robinson. A name probably not familiar to many people in the North East of England, or the UK as a whole. But in the USA, he is a legend.
Jackie Robinson was a pioneer. Not just in sport, but in the cause of equal rights and race relations in the USA. He was the first black Major League baseball player in the 20th Century. He broke baseball’s self-imposed colour line when he took to the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Until then, baseball had been an all-white game. Kept that way by a cartel of self-interested team owners, managers, players and, most damningly, the game’s administrators at Major League Baseball.
Wearing his distinctive shirt with 42 on the back, Robinson was a magnificent baseball player and one who entered the game’s Hall of Fame on his own right and was voted an All-Star every year between 1949 and 1954.
He’s someone who I think about an awful lot as a sportsman and have nothing but respect for. Not only was he a first-rate player, he was intelligent, articulate and fully-aware of the role that he could play in improving the lot for his fellow black men. He was a true hero; someone who went beyond the sport and had an impact on the wider world.
Two things in particular stick out in Robinson’s story, to show what kind of a man he was. The first one was when he was playing for an all-black team in 1945. In this era of segregation, many white-run hotels, businesses, restaurants, petrol stations and the like would not allow black people in.
On this occasion, at a petrol station where Robinson’s team had stopped for many years, but yet never been allowed to use the bathroom, the young Robinson told his team-mates not to fill up the coach unless they could use the bathroom. The owner relented. This was an early sign of Jackie’s strength of character and determination to fight against racism.
A second demonstration of Robinson’s quality came in 1947. Before being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, the club’s owner Branch Rickey made Robinson promise that, despite all the insults and pressure he would face from people on and off the field, he would never talk or fight back. He knew that, for Robinson to earn respect, he would have to go beyond the boundaries of respectful.
At first, Robinson was aghast. “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” he asked. To which the reply came that Rickey needed a player “with guts enough not to fight back”.
Seeing the wisdom of the argument, Robinson agreed and for three entire years endured the vilest taunts imaginable. Pressure came from all quarters, including his own team, as people tried to make him snap. But Robinson held his tongue. He did this until Rickey released him from his promise. He blazed a trail and did it with deeds, not words.
So great were his achievements, that Robinson was honoured in a unique way by baseball. Individual clubs had long been in the practice of retiring the numbers of great past players. But in 1997, the MLB retired his number 42 across every team in the whole of the Major League.
So, why have I been writing about this remarkable man? Because of the game that Jackie loved and played. And it is a game that, after a 4 year hiatus, I took up playing again. I have joined the Newton Aycliffe Spartans, the North East’s newest baseball team.
Founded by people who love this game, they are playing their first season in competitive baseball and have ambitious plans to grow. Baseball was once, a long time ago, a popular game in the UK and the North East in particular. Indeed, the 1892 national champions were Middlesbrough!
Baseball was, and still is, America’s Game, and it is one, like street cricket, that requires very little in the way of specialist equipment, location and skill to play. If you can throw, hit or catch, then you can play.
It is a game that retains a special place in American sporting mythology, much as cricket does in the UK. Unlike with American Football, soccer and rugby, it is simpler to compare the players of baseball and cricket from generation to generation. Partly because of this ease, the game is one that is very proud of its history.
And so are its fans. Despite the game itself often making it very hard for them to remain in love with it and testing their patience. From the 1919 Black Sox (where players on the Chicago White Sox tried to throw the World Series in return for bookmakers’ money) to the BALCO steroids scandal of the early 2000s, where numerous big players came forward or were outed as having used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.
Yet, the fans still go. Because the game rises above these individual scandals and disgraces and remains something that they love and dream about. So long as there are heroes like Jackie Robinson to remember.
And which number will I be wearing when I step out on the field for the Spartans? Well, there could be only one. 42. My own little tribute to a fantastic baseball player and a great man. And a game that continues to live, thrive and survive, despite all that has happened to it.
And long may it do so.
© 2012 Mark Tindle
Are you interested in becoming a Spartan? Rookies and veterans; men and women, are all welcome. The team trains on Thursday evenings in Newton Aycliffe and plays its games on Sundays. For more information visit their website: http://www.newtonaycliffespartans.co.uk/