When Robinson took the field with the Dodgers for the first time on April 12, 1947, America was wallowing in apartheid. A year before Robinson’s breakthrough, Major League Baseball had conducted a secret study of the impact of allowing black athletes to play the national game. It concluded that integrating the teams would not only offend white sensibilities but also lower the standard of play. Maybe someday, when blacks were ready, baseball could take the risk. How familiar these arguments sound a half-century later in the debate over affirmative action. It’s not remarked on much these days, but Robinson was the product of a unique brand of preferential treatment. He was not the best ballplayer the Negro Leagues had to offer, but he was still the best candidate to step over the color line. At 28, with World War II service in the Army behind him, Robinson was mature and tough enough to withstand the taunts of racist fans and opposing players. He was married, to the beautiful Rachel Robinson, and hence no threat to the sanctity of white womanhood. And he was, literally, an All-American–in football at ucla. Moreover, Robinson understood everything that was riding on the experiment. He left his natural combativeness in the locker room and endured incredible abuse without fighting back. He let his batting and base running speak for him–and they spoke eloquently.
There is a reason why so many young black men have tried to follow in Robinson’s footsteps, pouring all their ambitions into the hope of a career as a pro athlete. Sport is one of the few arenas of American society in which the playing field is really level. If you get across the finish line first, you win; no one claims that you’re lowering standards. If you’re as good as Robinson was, your acclaim transcends racial boundaries. But unless you get the chance to compete, you can never demonstrate your ability.
Robinson had the guts to speak out against racial injustice after he retired from baseball. In 1963 he traveled to Birmingham to be with Martin Luther King Jr. after four little black girls were blown to bits in the bombing of a church. “The answer for the Negro is to be found, not in segregation or separation, but by his insistence upon moving into his rightful place, the same place as that of any other American within our society,” he argued. He didn’t back down from his integrationist stance even when more militant blacks called him an Uncle Tom.
You can hardly imagine contemporary black sports superstars taking an equally brave stand on a divisive moral issue. Most are far too concerned with raking in endorsement dollars to risk any controversy. In 1990 Michael Jordan, who occupies the psychological spot that Robinson pioneered as the dominant black athlete of his time, declined to endorse his fellow black North Carolinian Harvey Gantt over troglodyte racist Jesse Helms in a close contest for the U.S. Senate on the grounds that “Republicans buy shoes too.” More recently, Jordan brushed off questions about whether Nike, which pays him $20 million a year in endorsement fees, was violating standards of decency by paying Indonesian workers only 30[cents] a day. His curt comment: “My job with Nike is to endorse the product. Their job is to be up on that.” On the baseball field or off it, when Robinson came up to the plate, he took his best shot and knocked it out of the park. The superstar athletes who have taken his place, sadly, often strike out.