Seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, nine before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and 16 before the March on Washington, a man stepped on a field and signaled change. Not just in baseball and not just in professional sports but in society.
Though his opponents tried to spike his shins, tried to wound him with words and tried to drown his hope with hate, Jackie Robinson's unyielding belief that he belonged in the big leagues would not be deterred. He ushered in a long-overdue era of enlightenment that eventually extended beyond baseball's borders. That's why we speak and celebrate his name with such continued reverence, and why April 15 is so special.
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But Jackie Robinson Day is not just about a man, and it is not just about a number affixed on the back of every ballplayer's jersey. It's about a movement that began with sports' breakthrough model of courage and continues to this day.
Jackie begat baseball's other barrier breakers, the men and women who molded an ongoing ascent in which the sport strives to more accurately represent the ideals of the country that birthed it. The residual effects of April 15, 1947, are still revealing themselves.
• No. 42 to return as baseball celebrates Jackie
So this is an anniversary that not only does not lose its luster, but in fact steadily gains gravitas.
When you think about Jackie Robinson, think about Larry Doby, who endured equally as much deplorable bigotry in breaking the American League color barrier at a time when the sport's two leagues were still very much distinct.
Just 81 days after Jackie's debut, Doby made his.
It was Robinson's April 15 arrival that emboldened Indians owner Bill Veeck to step up his efforts to integrate the Junior Circuit. Veeck consulted with childhood friend Bill Killefer, whom he had hired to scout the Negro Leagues, and black sportswriter Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier to find a fit, and they landed on Doby, an exciting outfielder for the Newark Eagles. Veeck finalized the deal for Doby's rights on July 3, 1947, and put him in an Indians uniform just two days later. Whereas Robinson had a year in the Triple-A International League to prepare for the unprecedented situation he'd face in the Majors, Doby had mere hours.
Because Doby was second, not first, because he did not play in a major media market, and because he was naturally an introvert, his story simply isn't given anywhere near the attention that Robinson's receives.
"When he was playing -- and even after that -- he was sometimes a quiet person who kind of kept his emotions close to the vest," his son, Larry Doby Jr., once told me. "I think that was misinterpreted as him being sullen or moody or something like that. But he was under a strain that only one other person felt in that situation."
A few others would integrate that 1947 season, including Robinson's Brooklyn teammate Dan Bankhead, the Majors' first black pitcher. But the process in some places was woefully slow, as evidenced by Doby becoming the Detroit Tigers' first black player nearly 12 years after he made his debut with the Indians.
So Robinson's impact in changing baseball's face was not immediate in all markets.
But it was essential in the idea it instilled in the hearts and minds of those who would continue to compel the sport, and the country, in its necessary progression.
This extends beyond the natural progression toward the first black umpire (Emmett Ashford) or the first black manager (Frank Robinson) or the first black general manager (Bill Lucas). The same year Jackie made his debut with the Dodgers, a fiery young man was the starting third baseman for the East in the East-West All-Star Game and the leadoff hitter for a New York Cubans club that defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes in the Negro League World Series. Born in Cuba, this player came to the United States knowing his skin color would subject him to law-aided discrimination, but he held hard to a hope that people would ultimately judge him only by his play. And when the color barrier was broken at the game's highest level, he dreamed big.
"If Mr. Jackie could make it," Minnie Minoso would say to himself, "I could make it, too."
Before Minoso and before Robinson, Latino players blurred baseball's color line but didn't totally cross it. If you were a dark-skinned Latin American or Latino player prior to April 15, 1947, you went to the Negro Leagues. If you were light-skinned -- and it's believed 53 such players preceded Robinson's arrival -- you could be signed by a big league club. It's a distinction that would be laughable in retrospect if it weren't so appalling.
Minoso made it in 1948, becoming baseball's first black Cuban player. And the talent and courage he displayed early in a remarkable career that would span all or parts of 17 seasons led Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda to heap upon him the highest praise.
"Minnie Minoso is to Latin ballplayers what Jackie Robinson is to black ballplayers," Cepeda wrote in his autobiography. "Minnie is the one who made it possible for all us Latins. He was the first Latin player to become a superstar."
Minoso wanted to be Jackie, and Roberto Clemente wanted to be Minoso. This is how torches are passed, legacies are built and a game and a country are forever changed for the better.
In that sense, Robinson was the first domino or, as celebrated documentarian Ken Burns told MLB Network this week, "the person who made it possible for baseball to become, in fact, what it had always claimed to be -- the national pastime."
Robinson's spirit now lives in those contributing to baseball's continued growth in diversity.
It exists in Billy Bean, who, in his role as MLB's vice president for social responsibility and inclusion, is putting in the time and the legwork to ensure that baseball provides an environment in which gay players, such as Brewers prospect David Denson, and personnel, such as umpire Dale Scott, can feel comfortable coming out.
"I'm confident -- and I think everybody is -- that there are players now that are gay and have not said so," D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall said recently. "I'm looking forward to that day when we can point to one or many players and say, 'There's an example of our inclusion and our acceptance.'"
It exists in the A's Justine Siegal, the Majors' first female coach. And in Kim Ng, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations and the woman oft-cited as most likely to become the game's first female GM.
"I think it's a question of time," Commissioner Rob Manfred said this spring. "The right opportunity, a club willing to take a chance and do something different. I think it will happen."
Robinson's spirit also exists in the Dodgers' Farhan Zaidi, the game's first Muslim American GM, who, in a recent interview with PBS, summed up the inclusive nature baseball -- and the country at large -- should seek to attain.
Said Zaidi: "I don't think baseball belongs to anyone or any one group of people."
Jackie Robinson was the first person to put that idea into practice. That's why we celebrate him and the other trailblazers who followed and will follow. Jackie Robinson Day is about celebrating history, sure. But it still has tremendous bearing on baseball's present and its future.