Here’s a story about the bridge that Jackie Robinson crossed, and some of the men who built that bridge. I was going to deliver this as a speech last month, to close out a regional celebration of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s traveling exhibition, Pride & Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience. But because I was suddenly laid low by a bout of ill health, from which I have since recovered, the event had to be cancelled and the speech shelved. Now, as we near Jackie Robinson Day, I thought I’d share these thoughts with you, in two parts. Please note that in some period accounts quoted below, language regarded as offensive today is reproduced verbatim.
A feature film, titled 42, about Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 will have its premiere pretty soon, on April 12 in fact. (Had the studio scheduled the opening three days later, they would have launched on the very date that Jackie first wore that number at Ebbets Field; oh well—I’m sure they knew that.) Harrison Ford will play Branch Rickey, Chadwick Boseman will play Jackie, and the screenwriters will get the story right, largely. However, a film will take dramatic license that the written word may not. Like the newsman in the great western picture The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the director of 42 must say, “This is baseball, folks. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
To a greater extent than Hollywood, a historian is obliged to follow the trail of fact. It diminishes Rickey and Robinson not one bit to think about all those black players of long ago who built the bridge, as my friend Buck O’Neil said, that Jackie Robinson walked across.
I will wish to talk about how African Americans came into the game—as early as slaves playing ball 25 miles south of my home, in Kingston, in 1820—then were excluded from it, and then readmitted only to have the gate close again. The story of the Negro Leagues, founded in 1920, has been amply covered by recent scholars, so I will skip over the well-worn tales of Josh and Satch and Rube and Oscar to focus on some stories and some names that most baseball fans may not know.
Posted: March 18, 2013 at 09:50 AM | 3 comment(s)
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