Icon’s legacy resonates in this day and age
In a time of renewed intolerance, social unrest and increased racial injustice, it’s only fitting that the PawSox would once again pay respects to Jackie Robinson, a beacon of hope in the Civil Rights Movement
PAWTUCKET — Pawtucket Red Sox President Charles Steinberg said that when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, he was a part of a social phenomenon.
Unfortunately, Steinberg said, the prejudice and racism and hate didn’t end when Robinson took the field in 1947 and it didn’t end with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Steinberg said that when he references intolerance, “we’re not talking about history, we’re talking about current events. We’re talking about today’s news.”
“I wish it weren’t so,” he continued. “I wish we lived in a utopia. Why is it still that there is, just as there was, this separation? Today, a word that gets used so much that you can get numb to is hate. In my opinion, hate is the hardened form of the word that forms hate and that’s fear.”
Fear, Steinberg said, is what separates people, and people in the 1940s were afraid of Jackie Robinson and having other African-Americans play.
“It’s the courage to recognize that fear can be overcome with approach, embrace, learning, finding out someone’s story,” Steinberg said.
Steinberg’s words referenced the past and present and his hope for a more unified future during the PawSox’ secondannual celebration of Robinson’s life and his impact on baseball and society. Held Saturday in the PawSox’ home clubhouse at McCoy Stadium, the fete was attended by former baseball players, dignitaries, politicians, and members of the Tolman High School baseball team.
Former Boston Red Sox outfielder and Red Sox Hall of Famer Tommy Harper said that Robinson made it possible for African-Americans to play professional sports in America and that his performance opened up different attitudes.
“In the era of Jackie Robinson, African-Americans had no civil rights, there were no laws to prevent hotels from discriminating against African-Americans, you couldn’t enter a hotel, you couldn’t eat in a restaurant,” Harper said. “That’s the environment that Jackie Robinson came up through and we’re here as a tribute to Jackie Robinson for history’s sake to keep his legacy going.”
Harper asked the attended crowd to imagine the pressure of playing baseball and trying not to fight back through all he had to endure.
“There was no way you could play baseball in that era and let it get to you. I tell young players you have to focus on what is important to you, that’s what I’m focusing on,” Harper said. “Nothing can keep us from our goals, not in this country. That’s what I always take away.”
After Harper endured his share of racial taunts and criticism as a ballplayer with seven different organizations, he further realized what Robinson went through and what he meant to history.
“The more I learned about him and what he went through, the more I respected him,” he said. “We can do this because we know what he went through.”
Former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn reminisced about attending Boston Braves home games as a youth and carrying Jackie Robinson’s bags from the locker room to his taxi.
“I’ve worked with popes, I’ve worked with presidents, I’ve worked with prime ministers, but this is the man that has such a profound effect on me,” Flynn said.
“The reason why I love Jackie Robinson and admire him and followed his career is because he, more than any other American, changed all that. You read about presidents, these famous politicians, Supreme Court decisions, this is the man who really gave it all at the start,” Flynn said. “He opened the door for the greatest athletes to play in the greatest games.”
Steinberg also called on the Tolman High School ballplayers in attendance to beware of stereotypes, confront them, and find out the truth.
“Now it’s going to be primarily up to you to say what kind of world do we want to construct, what kind of country do we want to live in? It’s the greatest opportunity you have in the world,” Steinberg told the students.
Tolman High senior Timothy Greene said that as a baseball player in this era, the thought of racism on the ballfield is something that he cannot comprehend. He said to hear people shed light on what they had to endure while playing a game, particularly players on the team eating meals separate from their teammates, upset him.
“I’m a team guy, if I see one teammate not being able to participate, it makes me mad,” Greene said.
Aaron Massey, also a senior ballplayer at Tolman, said that as a white person, he’s not in a similar position to that of Robinson or Harper and the racism they had to endure. If he were in their situation, however, Massey said he’s unsure if he’d be able to handle it with the class and dignity akin to Robinson or Harper.
“It’s pretty amazing to hear what he endured and still played ball,” Massey said, calling Harper’s words “inspiring.”
Tolman senior Peter Microulas echoed his teammate’s sentiment, saying the day itself was a great source of inspiration and that he was impressed by Robinson continuing to pursue his goal of playing Major League Baseball despite all of the impediments people put in his way.
George Mitrovich, chairman of The Great Fenway Park and Great Washington Writers Series, emceed the event. He said that there was no more important African-American than Robinson, as the nation entered a new phase of its history because of his breaking of baseball’s color barrier.
“We have come a long way but look at the world around us, we’ve got a long way to go,” Mitrovich said. “The lesson of Jackie’s life is that you treat everybody with respect, that you treat everyone with dignity, and that you accept everyone. That’s the lesson that I took from this extraordinary person’s life.”
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate Dick Flavin said that Robinson had to suffer “all these slings and arrows” to serve the greater cause of desegregating baseball. While he is viewed historically by many as somewhat of a saintly figure, Robinson was also a “tough, hard guy” who would not stand for being insulted.
“The hardest thing was to keep his temper when all of these slurs and insults came his way,” Flavin said. “For the first three years, he wasn’t going to answer those insults that came hot and heavy. This was a racist country 70 years ago. After those first three years, the slurs abated, they knew you don’t want to get Jackie mad, he’ll hurt you on the ballfield.”
Robinson would have turned 98 on Tuesday, the eve of Black History Month. In 1997, Major League Baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig announced that Robinson’s jersey number, 42, was to be the first number ever retired by every club in Major League Baseball. The only time the number 42 is seen on a Major League Baseball field annually is on April 15, the anniversary of Robinson’s big-league debut, when every player wears the number.
Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. His accolades include being named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947, National League Most Valuable Player in 1949, a sixtime All-Star, and a member of Major League Baseball’s All-Century Team. He retired with a .311 batting average and more than 1,500 career hits over 10 seasons with the Dodgers.
Pictured, clockwise from top, Pawtucket Red Sox President Charles Steinberg speaks during Saturday’s Jackie Robinson festivities; Red Sox Hall of Famer Tommy Harper shared his stories with the student-athletes from Tolman High School, and shed light on how Robinson paved the way for other African-American baseball players like himself; and former Mayor of Boston and Providence College basketball alum Ray Flynn also joined the clubhouse discussion about how Robinson's courage impacted many of his basketball teammates. Robinson would have turned 98 on Jan. 31, the eve of Black History Month.
Baseball players from Tolman High School in Pawtucket joined the PawSox in celebrating the life of Jackie Robinson on Saturday. In presenting a $1,000 check to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the team is joined by Pawtucket Red Sox President Charles Steinberg, second from left, and former Major Leaguer Tommy Harper, far right.