Jackie Robinson meant everything to me.
Before I was a teenager, I was telling my father that I was going to be a ballplayer, and he was telling me, “Ain’t no colored ballplayers.”
Then Jackie broke into the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup in 1947, and Daddy never said that again.
When the Dodgers played an exhibition game in Mobile, Ala., on their way north the next spring, Daddy even came to the game with me. A black man in a major-league uniform: That was something my father had to see for himself.
Jackie not only showed me and my generation what we could do, he also showed us how to do it. By watching him, we knew that we would have to swallow an awful lot of pride to make it in the big leagues.
We knew of the hatred and cruelty Jackie had to quietly endure from the fans and the press and the anti-integrationist teams like the Cardinals and the Phillies and even from his teammates. We also knew that he didn’t subject himself to all that for personal benefit.
Why would he choose to get spiked and cursed at and spat on for his own account?
Jackie was a college football hero, a handsome, intelligent, talented guy with a lot going for him. He didn’t need that kind of humiliation. And it certainly wasn’t in his nature to suffer it silently.
But he had to. Not for himself, but for me and all the young black kids like me. When Jackie Robinson loosened his fist and turned the other cheek, he was taking the blows for the love and future of his people.
Now, 50 years later, people are saying that Jackie Robinson was an icon, a pioneer, a hero. But that’s all they want to do: say it.
Nobody wants to be like Jackie. Everybody wants to be like Mike. They want to be like Deion, like Junior.
That’s OK. Sports stars are going to be role models in any generation. I’m sure Jackie would be pleased to see how well black athletes are doing these days, how mainstream they’ve become. I’m sure he would be proud of all the money they’re making.
But I suspect he’d want to shake some of them until the dollar signs fell from their eyes so they could once again see straight.
Jackie Robinson was about leadership. When I was a rookie with the Braves and we came north with the Dodgers after spring training, I sat in the corner of Jackie’s hotel room, thumbing through magazines, as he and his black teammates - Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black - played cards and went over strategy: what to do if a fight broke out on the field; if a pitcher threw at them; if somebody called one of them “nigger.”
In his later years, after blacks were secure in the game, Jackie let go of his forbearance and fought back. In the quest to integrate baseball, it was time for pride to take over from meekness.
And Jackie made sure that younger blacks like myself were soldiers in the struggle.
When I look back at the statistics of the late 1950s and ‘60s and see the extent to which black players dominated the National League (the American League was somewhat slower to integrate), I know why that was. We were on a mission.
And, although Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson and I were trying to make our marks individually, we understood that we were on a collective mission. Jackie Robinson demonstrated to us that, for a black player in our day and age, true success could not be an individual thing.
To players today, however, that’s exactly what it is. The potential is certainly there, perhaps more than at any time since Jackie came along, for today’s stars to have a real impact on their communities.
Imagine what could be accomplished if the players, both black and white, were to really dedicate themselves - not just their money, although that would certainly help - to camps and counseling centers and baseball programs in the inner city.
Some of the players have their own charitable foundations, and I applaud them for that. (I believe Dave Winfield, for instance, is very sincere.) But as often as not these good works are really publicity stunts. They’re engineered by agents, who are acting in the interest of the player’s image - in other words, his marketability.
Players these days don’t do anything without an agent leading them every step of the way (with his hand out). The agent, of course, could care less about Jackie Robinson.
The result is that today’s players have lost all concept of history. Their collective mission is greed. Nothing else means much of anything to them. As a group, there’s no discernible social conscience among them; certainly no sense of self-sacrifice, which is what Jackie Robinson’s legacy is based on.
It’s a sick feeling, and one of the reasons I’ve been moving further and further away from the game.
The players today think that they’re making $10 million a year because they have talent and people want to give them money. They have no clue what Jackie went through on their behalf, or Larry Doby or Monte Irvin or Don Newcombe, or even, to a lesser extent, the players of my generation.
People wonder where the heroes have gone. Where there is no conscience, there are no heroes.
The saddest thing about all of this is that baseball was once the standard for our country. Jackie Robinson helped blaze the trail for the civil rights movement that followed.
The group that succeeded Jackie - my contemporaries - did the same sort of work in the segregated minor leagues of the South. Baseball publicly pressed the issue of integration; in a symbolic way, it was our civil rights laboratory.
It is tragic to me that baseball has fallen so far behind basketball and even football in terms of racial leadership. People question whether baseball is still the national pastime, and I have to wonder, too. It is certainly not the national standard it once was.
The upside of this is that baseball, and baseball only, has Jackie Robinson.
Here’s hoping that on the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s historic breakthrough, baseball will honor him in a way that really matters. It could start more youth programs, give tickets to kids who can’t afford them, become a social presence in the cities it depends on. It could hire more black umpires, more black doctors, more black concessionaries, more black executives.
It could hire a black commissioner.
You want a name? How about Colin Powell? He’s a great American, a man more popular, maybe, than the president. I’m not out there pushing his candidacy, but I think he would be great for baseball. He would restore some social relevance to the game. He would do honor to Jackie Robinson’s name.
It would be even more meaningful, perhaps, if some of Jackie’s descendants - today’s players - committed themselves this year to honoring his name, in act as well as rhetoric.
Jackie’s spirit is watching. I know that he would be bitterly disappointed if he saw the way today’s black players have abandoned the struggle, but he would be happy for their success nonetheless.
And I have no doubt that he’d do it all over again for them.
MEMO: Hank Aaron, baseball’s all-time home run leader, is senior vice president of CNN Airport Network.
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