Panel: Jackie had to carry 'weight of an entire race'

July 19th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- On Monday afternoon, a pair of Hall of Famers, a former National League MVP, a co-founder of The Players Alliance and the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum all gathered in the All-Star Clubhouse at PLAY BALL Park.

During an All-Star Week hosted by the franchise of Jackie Robinson, those five men -- Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Jimmy Rollins, Edwin Jackson and Bob Kendrick -- came together to participate in an hour-long “Unfiltered” panel discussion on the life and legacy of the first Black man to play in the American or National League.

After an audience Q&A session, Tyler Gordon, a well-known young artist prodigy, joined them on stage to display his latest work, a large-scale portrait of Robinson in his distinct Brooklyn Dodgers No. 42 uniform.

Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten opened the panel before handing the microphone over to the moderator of the conversation: Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims.

“Jackie Robinson, probably after my dad, is the biggest hero I’ve ever had in my life,” Sims said. “And with a big part of what I do, I’m proud of where I am. In the history of Major League Baseball, there’s been fewer than 10 Black Americans who were team broadcasters, and I’m one of them. So I’m happy to be here.”

Though the panelists had not yet been born when Robinson broke the color barrier 75 years ago, he was still at the forefront of the Black community’s consciousness during their adolescence. Dawson said that he grew up a Dodgers fan because his three uncles supported the team, impressed by the accomplishments of the inaugural Rookie of the Year Award winner and the first Black player to win the NL MVP Award in 1949.

“I think sometimes, over time, we lose an understanding of just how challenging it was,” Kendrick said. “Because you talked about all the things that he had to deal with on the field, but you also have to think about the weight of an entire race of people that that man was shouldering.

“He was literally carrying 21 million Black folks on his back. And I say that because, if he fails, then an entire race of people would have failed. That’s an enormous amount of pressure. And as you guys know, in a game that is predicated on failure, he cannot fail. And somehow or another, he was able to shoulder that load and play this game at such a high level.”

That sheer strength of will is what stood out to the panelists the most, as each attested to how he could not believe Robinson was able to endure such hatred without fighting back. Not because they didn’t understand the discrimination he faced, but precisely because they did.

When Raines was in his second full season at Double-A in 1979, the team was in Chattanooga, Tenn. At the time, there were still restaurants where Black people couldn’t go inside.

“And I remember there was a Ku Klux Klan rally held before a game, and we couldn’t play the game because of it,” Raines said. “It hits me pretty hard because I grew up in Sanford, Fla. … They would not allow [Robinson] to play in my hometown. They rushed him out in the middle of the night to get him out of town because I think they were going to try to hurt him. He went to Jacksonville, Fla., and I think once he got to Jacksonville, they wouldn’t let him play there, either.”

Rollins grew up in the more integrated Bay Area, where people of all races lived in the same apartment buildings and attended the same schools. As one of the youngest members of the panel, he would often marvel at Robinson’s resolve, but he also sometimes questioned it.

“Coming up from a different environment, I used to be mad at Jackie, like, ‘Why didn’t he fight back?’” Rollins said. “I could not have done it; I would have done something. But as I got older, I understood. … They waited for one reason, and he never gave it to ‘em. And because of that, I’m thankful and we’re here.”

While overt displays of racism are less common nowadays, players have also stepped up to support their fellow teammates, opening up to honest conversations about race in the clubhouse and elsewhere. Jackson found that during his time in the Majors, his teammates were also willing to engage in the work to make the sport more inclusive.

The brotherhood mentality among the players, buoyed by the fact that they see each other more often than their families, pushed plenty of people to ask Jackson what they could do to be allies.

“It’s a discussion that a lot of people don’t have because it’s uncomfortable," Jackson said. "But I think the only way to get through these discussions is being comfortable being uncomfortable, because they don’t know how uncomfortable it is to be the only person that looks like you in a clubhouse and nobody can relate to what you’re going through.

“I’ve been having conversations about racism since high school. … And it’s been going on way before that, before I was even a kid; I graduated in 2001. It’s sad that we have to have those, but this is real. You can’t run from it.”

Remembering it is just as important. Because despite how far there is to go, the game has come a long way.