Jackie Robinson’s Contribution to America

This is a speech I gave to a forum of the American Bar Association in 1997, the 50th Anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues and American History. Baseball had just spent the summer saying “Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball” and my speech corrects that idea and shows that he broke the color barrier in America.

Our subject for this seminar is the role of agents and attorneys in promoting civil rights in sports. I am completely convinced that the agent’s or attorney’s role is the vigorous pursuit of client’s interests. However, I also believe that the role of sports in civil rights has often been ignored, although that role, especially baseball’s, has been very significant.

    The singular event in sports civil rights was the breaking of the color barrier in 1947. We celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of that event this year. I attended such celebrations and was struck by the fact that no one dealt with the significance of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers in both its contemporary and historic perspective. I will attempt to do that today. To do so, we must go to the beginning.

    The Constitutional Congress left two major issues unresolved. First, was the issue of federalism and states rights, and, second, was the issue of slavery. Eighty years after the passage of the Constitution, the slavery issue was settled, and the federalism issue partially resolved  in a great Civil War.  The emerging issue of civil rights was dealt with by the passage of the post war reconstruction laws that, unfortunately, failed to heal a torn nation. The assassination of Abraham Lincoln is the most tragic event in American history if for no other reason than the fact that he had the ability and foresight to heal the country. I have always been struck by the fact that Lincoln took a trip to Richmond within a week of its capture, and, with only a small group of sailors for protection, took a tour of the still smouldering city. Even at that time, with Southern armies still in the field and the battles still to be fought, Lincoln was pacifying Richmond. His death within a week of his visit to Richmond lead to harsh treatment for the South and resentments still felt today.

    Many of the tensions of the post civil war period were due to the laws passed just after the war ended. These reconstruction laws dealt with civil rights, but from our perspective today, they are most noted for the fact that from the time of their passing there were no civil rights laws  passed until the Eisenhower administration. The nation’s method of dealing with civil rights during that period was inaction as parallel universes based on race evolved under the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson.

    Plessy was decided in 1881, and it was two generations before Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers and Brown v. Board of Education reversed it. In those years, our nation developed along the Plessy lines in more ways than education. Our society developed into parallel universes based on race. Of course, this situation could not be sustained because it was horribly unjust, economically stifling, and an unabashed violation of the Constitution. There were many events during the interim period that indicated the proper course, however, all steps forward were matched with steps backward. The step forward that stuck and marked the change from Plessy to Brown, was Jackie Robinson’s playing in the Major Leagues.  To understand this, we must look at the world of 1947.

    America was the leading economic nation and the dominate power on earth. Baseball was the king of the sports world. In this pre-TV time, major and minor league attendance was very high. So too was attendance for the teams of the Negro Leagues, many of whose teams played in Major League parks and out-drew their Major League opposites. I don’t believe that there is any greater example of the parallel universes that existed in America than the two separate major baseball leagues.

    In Griffith Stadium, Washington, the Senators would play a home stand and then the Homestead Grays would move in. The Senators’ owner loved to interact with the Grays’ players. He met with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard in his office and spoke of what magnificent players they were. He talked to them of playing in the Major Leagues, but that he could not do it because one of the effects of that would be to do damage to their league. The system in America was set up to perpetuate the parallel universes. Jackie Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers meant that the old system was over. Such was the pent-up energy for change, that Larry Doby signed with the Indians later in that same season and a nation was changed.

    The signing of a baseball player in Brooklyn was the pivotal civil rights event of the era. Its significance, great in its own right, was magnified because it was baseball that did it. This event was followed by the integration of the armed forces a year later.  The parallel universes had ended and it was baseball that broke the color barrier in America, not just in the Major Leagues.  The NBA and NFL, both of much less significance then, had been segregated and integrated off and on for years. It was the baseball event that had the social impact. I think this is because baseball is like life. It is undeniably real. It is played by real people, some of which are 5’6″ and weigh 150 lbs and others are 6″10″. It is played in real time, not by the clock. Its over when its over. It starts in the spring, grows all summer and is harvested in the fall with the most magnificent sports event of all, the World Series. Baseball continues to be our most diverse game, with players of European, Asian, African ancestry, and from all of the Americas, Asia, and Europe represented in the Majors today. Baseball responds quickly to changes in American culture. Today we see Asian players from Japan and Korea and tomorrow we will see Asian players from Topeka and San Jose.

    The significance of this diversity on the base paths is seen when viewed through the eyes of the greatest of the century’s civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King, Jr. In his “I Have A Dream Speech, ” Dr. King said it was his dream and vision for America to have a society in which a person is not known for the color of his skin but for his character.”

    In baseball, real people are measured by ability without regard for color, religion or national origin. Let us hope that baseball’s leadership for our country in 1947 is also followed in the next century. The question remains, however, as to what the role of the agent and lawyer is in promoting civil rights in sports. I think it may be that we must maintain a vigil to assure that rights are protected, principles are adhered to, and  raise the issue when they are not.

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