Reflections on Jackie Robinson Day: Rememberance and Myth

Posted: April 15, 2012 in ALL II
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A consideration of Jackie Robinson raises questions of American mythology as Robinson is referred to not only as great baseball player but one of the most famous people in all of American History.  It cannot be taken for granted that Robinson officially crossed the color line for African-Americans during a time of limited integration, but his heralded status for this accomplishment simultaneously reveals the popular mythology of race, location, and social conflict unappreciated within the institution of organized [major] league baseball.  To understand Robinson’s importance in the minds of both baseball enthusiasts and American historians is a project to understand the lack of historical meaning surrounding baseball events prior to 1947.

The primary lens to deconstruct the mythological importance of Jackie Robinson involves a consideration of the official stature of Major League Baseball.   Several historical accounts, particularly Timothy Gay’s Satch, Dizzy, & Rapid Robert, explain the frequency of interracial baseball games being played throughout America during the 1930s with several passages remarking on repeated acknowledgement by white players of the talents of Negro League players.  The Negro Leagues, however, did not represent an official national recognized league as defined by its lack of white participation, lack of autonomy with stadium usage, missing prevalence in major cities, and most importantly a lack of equality in media coverage.  During this era more nationalized media outlets possessed the capability to dictate the importance and legitimacy of events; by choosing not to cover Negro League baseball, the media fashioned the conception of legitimate baseball (Organized Baseball) and its illegitimate counterpart.  By withholding the distinction of legitimacy, barnstorming interracial games and Negro League games provided people with momentary entertainment but could not meet the threshold of historical significance because its meaning is founded on illegitimate origins.  Subsequently, Jackie Robinson’s appearance in the legitimate Major League Baseball with the legitimate Brooklyn Dodgers for a legitimately sanctioned baseball game further expresses a mythos associated not with the socially constructed color line but with the official baseball color line.

Mythology also reemerges with the consideration of breaking the color line as it relates to America’s disappointing racial history.  Robinson’s mythos effectively originates from the broken color line of the American pastime.  This assumes that mythology is not associated with baseball as game/sport but as the quintessence of America: the country, its values, and societal purity.  With this understanding Robinson, the man, represented a story of mythic proportions as he came from a well-educated background at the University of California – Los Angeles, a history of military service amid times of national pride during World War II, and a deeply religious background as a Methodist in the hyper-Christianized American landscape.

From these foundations, Robinson also represented the most chronicled racial history within the country: the story of African-Americans and Whites from the slavery question to the ceding of equality on and off the field.  It is not without coincidence that people know the first African American player to break the color line but do not know firsts in other well represented ethnic groups in modern day baseball.  African Americans, as outlined in the  famed Frick Report, began gaining legitimacy in other major sports on both a national and international stage in the 20th century.  The dominance of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and national triumph of Joe Louis – a black boxer representing not only himself but the entire nation- over Max Schmeling represented two of many increasing occurrences of displays of competence in white dominated fields.  Many would concede that Jackie Robinson did not represent the best Negro League player available based on on-field talent but he did represent the proper combination of talent and resolve to advance under high pressure racial tensions.  The history of black/white relations particularly in America adds to the historical significance in ways that Native American players integrating baseball do not offer due to the varying degrees of oppression implemented through the formal government.

In many ways it is very unusual to consider the story and aura of Jackie Robinson from an objective perspective, let alone consider him as a member of American mythology.  When I learned about baseball or any team sport, the most important lesson always was “There is no I in team.”  Despite talent level, no one player is every bigger than the team and the game itself.  As Bud Selig declared in 1997, even this idea did not hold true for Jackie Robinson: “No single person is bigger than the game. No single person other than Jackie Robinson.”  Robinson’s praise as an American legend on and off the field is a story of the culmination of changing times throughout America punctuated by desegregation in baseball.  His ability to rise through the illegitimate leagues into Organized Baseball, quietly accept the abuse presented before him, and inevitably force players and the public to embrace him become the story of legendary figures of the time.  In many ways Jackie Robinson is the result of a culmination of perfect timing: baseball’s popularity before its decline five years later, war, ideal upbringing, integration throughout other aspects of society, and the capitalist ambitions of one “benevolent” owner.  Through all these foundations the ability for Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the outsider, to become “Robbie” inspired and contributed to the mythology surrounding the one man greater than the game.

Everyone wore 42 on Sunday ensuring some remembrance of the legend, a gesture worthy of high praise.  Ultimately as a black male who played baseball twelve of my twenty-two years on this earth, I hope this was more than a gesture and a true reflections of what was, what is, and what is not.

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