Today is the 100th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s birth.
At this point it’s hard to say anything about Robinson that any baseball fan has not already heard, over and over again. But then again, it’s impossible to overstate the significance of the fact that it was only 72 years-ago that he became the first black man to play major league baseball in the modern era. It’s not ancient history. My dad was alive at a time when only white men were allowed to play baseball. Our current president was too. So too were players as recent as Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson.
Though you almost certainly know the general parameters of Robinson’s accomplishments, you should nonetheless take some extra time to reacquaint yourself with Robinson’s story once again. Today the New York Times has a fantastic set of images and personal essays about Robinson and his legacy. You should go check out Jackie’s Baseball-Reference.com page too, as we sometimes spend so much time talking about his historical significance that we forget he was a hell of a baseball player regardless. It’s also worth remembering that Robinson’s post-playing career, which includes a lot of important work in the civil rights movement, was also significant.
Finally, let us take a moment to acknowledge that history has a funny way of sanding the edges off of important civil rights figures after they die in order to make them more palatable — or useful — to people in the here and now. People like Robinson, who drew all kinds of ire in life, are cast as being universally beloved later on. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s not fine that they are often, at the same time, held up as standing for an awful lot of things they didn’t or wouldn’t, in reality, stand for in life.
Which is to say that, even if you genuinely and fully appreciate his legacy and accomplishments, open yourself up to the possibility that Jackie Robinson would not necessarily be your friend or comrade in any random cause today. That’s true especially if you’re the sort of person who likes to say things like “Jackie Robinson would never . . .” when you take aim at current civil rights or political figures. If you’re going to invoke Robinson — or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks or Cesar Chavez or anyone else — do so for who they were and what they stood for, not for what you’d like to assume they’d stand for because it jibes with your own stances.