Rule #52 – History is just that. Learn from it.
For as long as I can remember, baseball has been a part of my life. Memories – of sitting in the stands with Dad and my brother at Connie Mack Stadium, of pick up games in the street outside my house, of CYO games playing catcher (badly, too), of youth league games playing catcher and outfield, of family get-togethers listening to relatives arguing about which Philadelphia Phillie player was the bigger bum this week, of stealing only certain baseball cards from my brothers to clip into the spokes on my bike – these defined my childhood. These memories helped to make me the rabid fan that I am today.
The heroes of baseball were as familiar to me as cousins. Names like Ritchie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Jim Longborg, Lou Brock, Willie Mays, Steve Carleton, Mike Schmidt, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Jim Palmer, and Carl Yazstrzemski – all were people we frequently discussed over dinner and after dinner. At that time, baseball on the radio was the soundtrack of our lives.
Fast forward to the present and my passion for the game has not diminished. No, it may be even stronger today, even though I can’t participate as I used to do. This passion led me to head to the theater to see “42”. It is the story of one of my childhood heroes, Jackie Robinson, and his integration into all-white Major League Baseball.
True fan that I am, I even dressed for the event. The biggest decision was which team shirt I should wear. I didn’t have to dig deep into the drawer to pull out my Phillies tee shirt. It didn’t have a number on the back, just the star and name “Phanatic”, after the mascot.
I sat there in the darkened theater, mesmerized by the images on the screen. There was Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) in that iconic picture signing his Dodger contract. There was catching great Joe Garagiola (Gino Anthony Pesi) visibly conflicted about the situation on his team. There was Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) standing up for Jackie on the field. This story was a baseball lover’s dream come true.
The dream turned into a nightmare in a few scenes. Branch Rickey argued with then-general manager Herb Pennock (Mark Harelik) about the Phillies refusing to play any game with a black player on the field. There stood then-Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) spewing out the most hateful epithets as Jackie Robinson stood at the plate. The words, the venom with which they were spoken had me cringing in my seat. I felt myself shrink down, trying to hide, wondering if the choice of a Phillies shirt was a good one. Where’s that huge rock to burrow under when you need it? I was ashamed to be a Phillies fan at that moment.
As I watched those scenes unfold on the screen, though, I could hear the same words from Chapman’s mouth ping around in my brain. I’ve heard them before growing up in Philadelphia. Many of my relatives used those same words to describe African-Americans. My mom didn’t like hearing that speech and would not let us use those words. But the sentiments were all around me growing up in a working class family. It wasn’t right, but it was there. And just because it was there, didn’t make it right.
I had to stop and think afterward… what has changed? Yes, baseball is really integrated for race and religion. But in the hearts and minds of many, what prejudices still exist? Do I have the guts to stand up for what’s right when it counts?
Jackie Robinson opened the door for so many others of all races to rise to the ranks of major league player. What he went through as a person, and as a player – there is where the real hero emerges. He was frustrated with the attitudes of others, but he rose above it all. He wore number 42 with pride and courage. He had more guts than most people I know. For that example shown to the world, his number 42 will be permanently retired from all teams in baseball, with the retirement of the last player now wearing it, Yankee pitcher Mariano Rivera.
So, with apologies to Paul Simon, may I raise a glass and propose a toast:
Here’s to you Mr. Robinson,
Jesus knows the crap that you went through
Woo, ooo, ooo…
Thank God for you, Mr. Robinson,
We need a man like you on earth today.
Hey, hey, hey…. Hey, hey, hey
May we all learn from his example.