What would you say about a grown man whose wristwatch depicts a photo of a baseball player?
Would you call him juvenile? Obsessed?
And what if I told you that said baseball player was Jackie Robinson?
Rather than play 20 questions, we’ll stop at four and I will admit to being the man with the watch. It was a Christmas gift from the youngest of my three daughters, Alexis. She knew how much I had admired the man since boyhood (mine, not his), and thought it would be an appropriate gift on a Christmas morning four or five years ago.
How right she was.
I wear the Jackie Robinson watch every day of my life. It is a daily reminder of what one man accomplished under harsh conditions, of how one courageous man triumphed over centuries of bigotry because of his indomitable will to prevail.
For most of my boyhood, Jackie Robinson was the face of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team for which I rooted with unbridled passion. He was, I will admit, the first human being I admired – and, to be sure, hero-worshipped.
As the first man of color to play Major League baseball in the 20th century, Jackie won a plethora of individual awards in his decade with the club. Rookie of the Year (1947). Batting champion (1949). Stolen base leader (1947, ’49). Most Valuable Player (1949).
Because of his excellent play and that of teammates named Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Preacher Roe, Clem Labine and others, the Dodgers won six National League pennants during Robby’s 10 seasons. In 1955, they finally ended the New York Yankees’ World Series domination by upending the Bronx Bombers in seven games to win Brooklyn’s first – and, as it developed, only – Series championship.
In an era when television was in its infancy and the nation’s sports pages contained fewer visual images, I discovered Jackie Robinson through his Bowman Gum baseball card. Many of my classmates in Union School rooted for the Yankees, but even they had to admit, however begrudgingly, that Robinson was a marvelous hitter, base stealer and second baseman.
In the summer of 1949, not only would Jackie lead the Dodgers to the National League pennant, but he also won the batting title (.342) and the MVP award. Both were firsts for players with skin of ebony, but he was already accustomed to being a trailblazer.
Few Dodger games were televised on the local station in New Haven. There were occasions, though, when I visited my friend Jimmy and his family on the opposite side of French Avenue, and got to watch the Dodgers and their pre-game show, “Happy Felton’s Knothole Gang,” on Channel 9.
Robinson, Reese and the other Dodgers would interact with Little Leaguers on the show, offer pointers and even play catch with the kids. Jackie’s voice was high-pitched, but one could discern his intelligence and underlying goodness.
This was a man among men.
Sacred Heart University, my alma mater and a former employer, had the foresight and wisdom to present an honorary doctorate to Jackie Robinson in 1972 – just five months prior to his untimely death at the age of 53. The citation captured the spirit and the passion of Robinson, stating in part:
“Most men have sympathy for the miseries of their fellow men, far fewer have compassion for them, and it is the rare man indeed who feels for them so deeply that he dedicates himself to their alleviation.”
Indeed, Jackie Robinson devoted most of his years to tearing down the walls of bigotry…on the playing fields and athletic courts as a four-sport letterman at UCLA, as a U.S. Army second lieutenant who refused to move to the back of the bus on a camp base, as a Hall of Fame player (inducted in 1962) who eradicated baseball’s color ban, as a business leader, as a civil rights champion who inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a loving husband and father.
Meeting racism face to face, he triumphed gloriously on all fronts.
In his wonderful 1972 book, The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn summarized Jackie’s impact on the fans at Ebbets Field and beyond. He wrote:
By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.”