One Extraordinary Robinson Remembers Another
Jackie Robinson gave his life for something great. He chose to bear the daily, bloody trial of standing up to beanballs and cleats launched into his shins, chest, and chin, and the race-baiting taunts raining down from the stands, along with trash, tomatoes, rocks, watermelon slices and Sambo dolls. And then he performed with eloquent achievement and superlative poise.”
Scott Simon, A number of players, managers and coaches will wear 42 on their backs today to honor Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his integrating Major League Baseball as a Brooklyn Dodger.
To note the occasion, the Jackie Robinson Society of George Washington University — a group formed in 1999 to promote discussion and community service in his name — hosted a program Thursday to honor Robinson, who died in 1972. Hall of Famer and former Nationals manager Frank Robinson also was honored.
“Jackie Robinson had great courage,” said author Roger Kahn, the keynote speaker.
“I was 11 when Jackie came up,” Robinson said. “I was old enough to understand that what he’d done had provided me the opportunity to realize my dream and play in the major leagues if I was good enough.”
Frank Robinson proved better than just “good enough,” hitting 586 home runs and batting .294 in a playing career that spanned 21 seasons, most of them in Cincinnati and Baltimore. He was the only player to win MVP awards in both leagues, then became the first African American manager in the majors, first piloting Cleveland in 1975 followed by stints in San Francisco, Baltimore and Montreal-Washington. He’s now working in the Major League Baseball commissioner’s office.
Call it coincidental or ironic, but the celebration of Jackie Robinson is occurring the same week as the furor created by radio star Don Imus and his disparaging remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which led to his subsequent dismissal by CBS Radio and MSNBC. This wasn’t the first time Imus had sped through the red light of decency, a fact not lost on Frank Robinson, whose baseball career began in the minors of the segregated South of the 1950s.
“It was a rude awakening,” Robinson recalled. “Especially when your own fans would taunt you.
Imus’s “comments hurt me and they’ll be linked to those women for the rest of their lives,” Robinson added. “But I was proud of how they handled themselves by not sinking to his level. Just when we think things are all right, something like this occurs to show all is not perfect. People still say and do crazy things.”
Jackie Robinson would have admired the class and dignity shown by the Rutgers basketball players and their coach, C. Vivian Stringer, in the aftermath of Imus’s insults. But he would not like the fact African Americans make up only 8.4 percent of major leaguers, compared with 29.4 percent Hispanics, 2.4 percent Asians and about 60 percent whites. Thirty years ago, African Americans accounted for nearly 30 percent of major leaguers.
MLB knows it must generate more interest in the game among African American youngsters, particularly in the cities. “When I was growing up in Oakland, we played from sunrise to sunset,” Frank Robinson recalled. “And we played on concrete. It’s what you did.”
Robinson no longer plays on concrete. He’s 71, but looks younger and better than he did walking out of RFK Stadium a final time at the end of last season, when he was dismissed after two seasons as Nats manager. Someone noted Washington’s one victory in its first nine games of 2007, prompting Robinson to crack: “That’s not so bad. I lost our first 21 managing the Orioles in 1988.”
K In light of the reaction to Imus’s comment on the Rutgers women’s basketball team, perhaps sports-talk radio hosts who delight in denigrating women’s sports might reconsider their approach. K Nats President Stan Kasten’s strategy — to build the team’s front office and scouting staff and restock a depleted farm system at the expense of the 2007 season — is off to a bad start. Their current payroll of about $35 million, down about $30 million from 2006, is too frugal.
Despite Kasten’s optimism for next year, when the new ballpark opens in Southeast, the potential of more than 100 losses this season will dampen any fan’s enthusiasm — even one who spent 33 years hoping for a team. The club cost the Lerner family $450 million, leaving one to ask, “Why go economy now, in just the third season after relocating to Washington?” The fan base here still needs building. K Can’t the mature and wise among us come up with a solution that satisfies all parties as 17-year-old Paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden seeks to compete for Atholton High School’s track and field team? Who among the lawyers, self-important sports czars of Maryland, students, coaches and parents is going to step up and be a mensch? K The Wizards are having trouble winning tight games without the injured Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. But they’re close and have spunk. I like spunk. K The 2007 Redskins schedule is out, and for those of you who scoff at my picking the home team to lose only one or two games a year, I’ll be making my picks after the draft. Actually, I’m waiting to see if the Redskins’ cagey front office lands Louisiana State quarterback JaMarcus Russell, or Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, or Bears linebacker Lance Briggs in exchange for whatever. K “Friday Night Lights” Update: The Dillon Panthers came from 26-0 down at halftime to defeat the Mustangs and win the Texas high school football championship on the final play of the game at Texas Stadium. It was a neat, Boise State-like hook-and-ladder touchdown pass from Saracen to Riggins to Smash. The final episode of the season left open the question of whether or not this terrific TV show will be renewed and if Coach Eric Taylor will leave Dillon to join the coaching staff of the state university in Austin?
I posed the question to Bill McGregor, head coach of perennial powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. “I think Coach Taylor will stay at Dillon,” McGregor said. “He has too many attachments to leave. I’d stay; I enjoy coaching at this level.”
Good Counsel’s Bob Milloy, a highly successful veteran of 37 years as a head football coach in the area, on Taylor: “I think he’ll take the job in Austin. But I’d stay because I love coaching high school football and nobody ever offered me a college job. Besides, at 63, I’m on the 17th fairway, if you know what I mean.” Have a comment or question on the Nationals’ plan for the future? Reach me at email@example.com.
Former Nats manager Frank Robinson, above, said Jackie Robinson “provided me the opportunity to realize my dream and play in the major leagues if I was good enough.”