Friday 26 February 2016

You Give Me the Number and I'll Give You the Guts!

Image courtesy

Rob and I just saw the movie "42" last night and we were thoroughly impressed.  Based on the life of baseball great Jackie Robinson, the movie tells the tale of how he broke the colour barrier in professional baseball.  It is a story of a true hero, a hero who endured taunts and death threats, but who never lowered himself to his enemy's level.

Jackie Robinson, the son of Georgia sharecroppers, never knew his father who abandonned the family when he was just a baby.  His mother moved the family to California where Jackie attended UCLA, lettering in not one but four sports.  After a brief stint in the Army, Jackie signed up with the Montreal Royals.  Only a year later, he signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was on this date in 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in professional baseball.  He was the first black player to set foot on the field with whites since the 1880's, the time of Reconstruction.  With his arrival came immediate rumblings:  rumblings from Jackie's teammates; rumblings from the opposing team; rumblings from the opposing coaches; rumblings from the crowd; and rumblings in the press.  What was a black man doing playing on a white baseball team?

The movie highlights one particular game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Jackie was up to bat.  While he tried to focus on the pitch, he had a constant barrage of taunts from the Pirates coach behind him.  Not one to hold his cool in the past, and not one to bend easily to Jim Crow laws, Jackie came close to losing it.  Finally, he'd had enough and he ran under the stands, smashing his baseball bat against a cement wall and breaking it into several pieces.

Photo of coach who taunted Robinson who agreed to a posed shot only after pressure from the Phillies owner courtesy 

It was there that he was met by the Dodgers' owner, Branch Rickey, a Christian businessman.  He reminded Jackie that the road to integration in baseball would not be easy.  He reminded him that like our Saviour, Jesus Christ, he would have to turn the other cheek.    He reminded him that if he fought back, the press would claim that he threw the first punch.  He reminded him that he still had complete faith in him.The best way to fight back would be to play his heart out and win the game.

Jackie didn't give up that day.  He marched back on the field and he played his heart out.  And his teammates started to fight back on his behalf.  One of them stood up to the Pirates coach who had been harassing Jackie.  The Dodgers ended up winning the game.

But it wasn't the end of the fight.  Jackie endured many death threats in the coming months.  He was run out of town in Florida during spring training.  And he was denied entry into hotels where the other team members stayed.

Jackie often wondered why the Dodgers owner, Mr. Rickey, signed him in the first place.  Why was he willing to field the inevitable questions that the media would direct his way about signing a black baseball player?  Why was he willing to put up with the fights that broke out in the locker room over the fact that one of the team's players was black.  Why was he willing to put up with the team being turned away from hotels simply because one of its players was black?

Photo of Mr. Rickey courtesy 

At first, Mr. Rickey claimed that he was strictly a keen businessman with a good eye for talent.  But later he revealed that when he was young, he met a young black baseball player like Jackie, but he didn't do enough to help him.  He vowed that if he had the opportunity again, he would help the next black baseball player who came into his life.

Bit by bit, Jackie's teammates accepted him as a full fledged member of the team.  Bit by bit coaches saw the incredible talent that he possessed.  Bit by bit, crowds started to see the promise in the young baseball player.  And bit by bit the media discovered what a legend in the making Jackie was.

Photo courtesy 

One journalist in particular took Jackie under his wing and looked out for him as he travelled from town to town.  He would make sure that Jackie had lodgings since most of the hotels would not accept blacks.  The journalist had a unique perspective since he too was black.  Just as Jackie had been refused entry into the white baseball teams at first, so too was this journalist refused entry into the white press box.  He sat in the stands with the fans and typed on a typewriter perched on his lap.

Jackie was not just a hero on the baseball field.  He was also a hero at home.  While his father ran out on him, he vowed that his children would know him, and know him well.  He and his wife raised three children and he was married until the day he died in 1972.  His baseball number, 42, is the only number to be permanently retired from the sport.  As Jackie had said to Mr. Rickey when he signed him:  "You give me a number on my back, and I'll give you the guts."  Thank you, Jackie, for your courage!

Photo courtesy

*First published in 2013.

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