Jackie 'has to be remembered every year'

August 28th, 2020

The legend of is so colossal that it continues to grow in depth and breadth.

The COVID-19 pandemic prevented this year's Major League season from beginning on schedule and thus denied Major League Baseball the opportunity to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day in its usual on-field fashion -- on April 15. That was the date in 1947 when Robinson, playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the Majors' color barrier. In so doing, he changed the game and society with it.

This year's change involving Robinson was seamless. Denied the opportunity to recognize him in April, MLB switched the 2020 observance of baseball's peerless pioneer to Friday, which deserves to be remembered as an epochal date for its rich significance.

It was on Aug. 28, 1945, when Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey informed Robinson of the organization's monumental decision to make him the face of integration -- and warned him of the pressures and pitfalls that lay ahead.

It was also the date of the March on Washington in 1963, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech before a throng estimated at 250,000, thus galvanizing the Civil Rights Movement. The event, which Robinson attended, delivered the same impact that Robinson's breakthrough into the Majors had on his generation and those to follow.

"As long as Jackie Robinson's name is out there every year, that's all that counts to me," said Tommy Davis, a Black outfielder who won National League batting titles with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1962-63. "He has to be remembered every year, for the rest of our lives, because of the fact that he was the first Black ballplayer. How important is that?"

Rickey's comprehension of that importance led him to summon Robinson to his Brooklyn office on that fateful Aug. 28 day. Rickey tested Robinson's resolve by simulating ugly situations that the 26-year-old would encounter as the man assigned to break the Major Leagues' color barrier. As noted in Jules Tygiel's book "Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy," Rickey "portrayed the hostile teammate, the abusive opponent, the insulting fan, the obstinate hotel clerk."

Said Dodgers scout Clyde Sukeforth, the only other man in the room: "I was impressed with the fellow and the way he handled himself. He would not go off half-cocked. He gave your questions serious thought before answering them."

Then came the now-legendary exchange, as Robinson asked, "Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer who's afraid to fight back?" Rickey responded, "I want a player with guts enough not to fight back."

Fast-forward 18 years. Robinson, having retired from baseball after the 1956 season, remained a force in America. Both candidates in the 1960 presidential election coveted his endorsement, which ultimately went to Republican nominee Richard Nixon. Robinson was unimpressed by John F. Kennedy, the Democrats' standard-bearer, when they met personally. Robinson would come to regret his decision to back Nixon in later years.

Meanwhile, after winning the election, Kennedy became more at ease with race relations and pushed for a civil rights bill, though he told Black leaders that he needed more Republican votes in Congress to guarantee passage of the measure. The March on Washington, Kennedy knew, could help his cause as long as the marchers demonstrated peacefully. He need not have worried as King enraptured listeners with his soaring address.

Robinson was there, too, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, alongside King, to greet many who had gathered. Robinson was joined in Washington by his wife and their three children.

"For an 11-year-old kid, in the heart of it, with his father's arm over his shoulder as the protector and leader in this world, it was a fantastic day for myself personally, and I think for us as a nation and us as a race," David Robinson, the youngest son of Jackie and Rachel Robinson, said in the PBS documentary "Jackie Robinson."

Of that day, Jackie Robinson later wrote: "I have never been so proud to be a Negro. I have never been so proud to be in America."

Watching the proceedings on television, Kennedy, who had never watched an entire King speech, fell under the same spell that captivated so many. "He's damned good. Damned good!" Kennedy said, as described in Richard Reeves' book, "President Kennedy: Profile of Power."

The same will always be said of Jackie Robinson.