Jackie, the consummate captain of braveness

April 14th, 2020

It was 73 years ago on Wednesday -- April 15, 1947 -- that ran out to first base at Ebbets Field in a game against the Boston Braves and not only broke baseball's color barrier, but became one of the most important Civil Rights leaders of the 20th century. He played first base that day, not second, and went hitless, even though he reached on an error in the seventh inning and scored the Dodgers' go-ahead run. And from that moment on in America, baseball would never look the same.

Robinson played the game with flair and fierceness and speed and daring. He would get to first base and then the fun would begin, not for the other team of course, certainly not for the opposing pitcher, but for all those in the stands who were watching Robinson almost reimagine the game's possibilities, some of them for the first time.

When they finally let Jackie Roosevelt Robinson play, oh Lord, did he play.

My dear friend Pete Hamill, the great columnist and author, a New Yorker of the first rank who moved home to Brooklyn in his 80s, told me that he felt as if he heard Robinson before he first got to see him at Ebbets Field in that historic baseball spring of 1947.

"It was from my father and his friends and the adults in the neighborhood," Pete told me not long ago. "Because it didn't take too long for them to say that if he could hit like that and run like that, let him play. And even when I was a kid, when I finally saw him for the first time, I knew that what he was doing out there was different from what the rest of them were doing."

Another time when we were talking about Robinson, Pete said, "By the end of that first season, there weren't nearly as many people using a particular slur about him they'd been using in April."

Even though we won't be playing baseball on Wednesday, April 15 is still Jackie Robinson Day, a national holiday for the national pastime. So while we won't get the ceremony at Dodger Stadium, where the Dodgers were supposed to be playing against the Cardinals, this is still a good occasion to remember the way Jackie Robinson could play the game, and what he meant, not just to baseball, not just to sports, but to his country.

It is why, in the spring of 2020, with the country and the world altered the way it has been because of the coronavirus, this is a perfect time to remember Jackie Robinson. Maybe as good a time as ever to remember him, and his legacy. Because more than anything else, Jackie Robinson was brave.

On the 50th anniversary of his debut, in 1997, I stood with Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, and her daughter Sharon, in a hallway at Shea Stadium before the ceremonies would begin to honor her late husband. At the end of Jackie's life, cut short by diabetes and heart problems when he was just 53 years old, the family lived in Stamford, Conn., the next town over from where I once lived. Much later I met Sharon's son Jesse when he was a high school football player in Stamford.

That night I asked Rachel Robinson, still the First Lady of the sport, what she remembered best.

"My husband was good," she said. "And he was brave."

Even when he was the one fighting illness in his later years, even when he was starting to go blind, he was brave. You honor that on this April 15 as much as you honor what he did on the field, from the time he did run out to first that day until he retired in 1957.

"He didn't just integrate baseball," Hamill always says. "He integrated the stands."

It is something he's said before. For any Brooklyn kid his age, Ebbets Field was a magical place. And finally in the summer of 1947, in a game between the Dodgers and the Pirates, 12-year old Pete Hamill finally got to see Jackie Robinson in person. And during the game, Pirates pitcher Hank Behrman hit Robinson with a pitch, hardly a unique occurrence.

Pete told me the story a couple of years ago, laughing at how even at 12 he knew how "monumentally dumb" it was to give Robinson a free base. But that's not what he remembered best about the day. Another immortal, Hank Greenberg, was playing first base for the Pirates that season, his last in the big leagues (he was still good enough to hit 25 homers). And when Robinson got to first, Greenberg leaned over and said something to him.

Jackie Robinson threw back his head and laughed.

Much later, Pete sat with Robinson for a column and asked him if he remembered what Greenberg said to him in that moment.

"He told me not to worry about it," Robinson told Pete. "He said, 'I'm Jewish, they used to try the same [stuff] with me.'"

So now it is another April 15, just without baseball for now, in this moment in America, because of this virus, when people are so afraid. When they are asked to be brave. Once in America, on a ballfield in Brooklyn, Jackie Robinson became the captain of that.