PHILADELPHIA -- April 15 will mark 75 years since Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut broke the color barrier in baseball, yet it remains difficult to contextualize just how much Robinson has meant to the sport and to the Black community.
Doug Glanville tried to put it into words on Friday. Speaking via Zoom at a symposium held by the Claire Smith Center for Sports Media at Temple University, Glanville explained that his family moved to Philadelphia long before his generation. They loved baseball. But the way Robinson was treated in the City of Brotherly Love -- before he died in 1972, he was quoted as saying the verbal attacks he received in Philly were worse than those in any other city -- led Glanville’s ancestors to stop supporting the local club. That was until Glanville was traded to the Phillies in 1997.
“I think it speaks to how much that things can be unresolved when we don't have anything restorative done,” Glanville said. “To recognize that the impact wasn't just on what was happening to Jackie Robinson, but it was having an impact on anybody who understood and experienced what he experienced as a person of color.”
Glanville’s familial anecdote was a snippet of the stories told and lessons shared during Friday’s symposium. The event, co-sponsored by MLB and the MLB Players Association, featured a list of esteemed speakers, some of whom claimed close ties to Robinson’s memory. Others spoke as stewards of the effort to preserve the history of those who came before Robinson. The final panels spun Robinson’s impact forward, debating what still needs to happen for barriers to continue to be broken in sports.
The theme connecting it all: “On whose shoulders do you stand?” The answer was Robinson. Branch Rickey III, grandson of the man who signed Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, traced 75 years of progress back to what he argued was maybe one of “the most miraculous moments in the history of baseball, at least off the field,” the first meeting between Robinson and then-Dodgers president Branch Rickey.
“My grandfather was looking for somebody who was not just a baseball player,” Rickey III said. “He was looking for somebody who could handle that degree of embedded suspicion in our society, the embedded stereotype, [somebody] that could win over a culture. And he was not willing to take just a baseball player. He was looking for the person. He was looking for a human being.”
The stakes were high.
“What if Jackie would have failed?” asked Sean Gibson, the symposium’s opening speaker and great-grandson of legendary Negro Leagues slugger Josh Gibson. “It already took a long time for Major League Baseball to take a chance on an African American player. But say if he would have failed and not been as successful as he was, who knows how long it would have taken another manager or owner to take a chance on a Black player.”
Robinson, of course, didn’t fail. Amid a barrage of racism, hatred and threats, he led the Dodgers to the National League pennant as Rookie of the Year in 1947 to embark on a Hall of Fame career and lifetime of civil rights work that changed baseball forever.
Friday’s conversations, though, were a reminder that Robinson’s success was an inflection point for the Negro Leagues as well.
“It is important that we remember those who really laid the foundation for Jackie,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. “Jackie played in the Negro Leagues for five months, and it seems to be the forgotten part of this conversation. ... This didn't happen in a vacuum.”
Kendrick, whose wealth of knowledge and storytelling ability is unmatched in baseball today, explained No. 42’s winding path to Brooklyn. Robinson was drafted into the Army in 1942 and he formed a friendship with boxing legend Joe Louis at Fort Riley, a military base in Kansas. Louis pulled some strings to get Robinson into officer school at Fort Hood in Texas. There, Robinson eventually met Hall of Fame right-hander Hilton Smith, who recommended Robinson to Kansas City Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson. It wasn’t long until Robinson played his way onto the Dodgers’ radar.
"Little did J.L. Wilkinson know, he had just signed the man who put him out of business,” Kendrick said. “By the end of the year, Jackie was gone. A few years later, he'd take that monumental walk on the field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and that would be the death knell for the Negro Leagues. J.L. Wilkerson sold his interests in the K.C. Monarchs. He knew it wasn't a matter of if. It was simply a matter of when the business of Black baseball was going to die.”
The final portion of the program sought to turn reflection into action. Astros manager Dusty Baker called in as keynote speaker, imploring the audience to emulate the honor and dignity with which Robinson and Hank Aaron lived. Hall of Fame basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer spoke of the need for more women in decision-making positions.
And Larry Doby Jr. -- son of Hall of Famer Larry Doby, the first Black player in the American League -- departed with a message that might aid either quest.
“A lot of times,” Doby said, “we fear the things that we don't know or the people we don't listen to or don't hear. If you can just listen to somebody else, you'll find out that many of us have more in common than we do the other way. This world is a lot better and a lot stronger when we do stuff together.”