WASHINGTON -- Last week, Washington provided a fitting prelude to the upcoming baseball season, and not just because its Nationals won their first exhibition game. Leaders of both major political parties, including President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, gathered on Capitol Hill to honor Jackie Robinson.
"His story is one that shows what one person can do to hold America to account to its founding promise of freedom and equality," the president said as he awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the first black man to play modern major league baseball. Robinson's widow, Rachel, accepted on his behalf.
I only have news reports to go by, but I'm guessing Vince Coleman did not leave spring training in Arizona to join the many dignitaries attending the ceremony. Vince who? Coleman, an African-American and one of the best base-stealers ever, won the National League Rookie of the Year award while with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1985. Robinson won the same award in 1947, and it is now named after him.
Coleman, these days a base running instructor with the Chicago Cubs organization, is probably mostly remembered for tossing an explosive that wounded three fans outside Dodger Stadium in 1993. Before then, however, he was roundly condemned for shrugging off the importance of Robinson's trailblazing efforts. "I don't know nothing about no Jackie Robinson," he infamously declared in 1991.
Rachel Robinson was not amused by that comment then. She said of Coleman, "I hope somehow he'll learn and be embarrassed by his own ignorance."
Ironically, one of Coleman's predecessors in left field for the Cardinals was Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer whose career choice was influenced by Robinson's example. To punish him for misbehaving in class, Brock's fourth-grade teacher sent him to the library to research a group of famous ballplayers that included Robinson.
Brock later recalled the homework assignment as a significant eye-opener. "He touched my world," he said. "I could have a fantasy, too, just like the white kids. I could dream of playing that great American pastime in huge stadiums before big crowds."
It's easy to pick on the less admirable heirs to Robinson's legacy -- great athletes such as Coleman and Latrell Sprewell, whose talent exceeds their dignity. But doing so obscures the fact that for every Coleman there has been a Delino DeShields, a speedy, graceful second-baseman who avidly studied the history of his sport, and for every Sprewell there has been a David Robinson, the former NBA center whose charitable contributions are substantial.
Sprewell, the former coach-choker who recently expressed doubts about being able to feed his family on roughly $14 million a year, has since said that his comments were taken out of context. "You just have to be careful as a player what you say," he has learned. "Certain people like to run with it and try to use your statements against you."
Few were as aware of this as Robinson. His declaration of patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 rebutted controversial remarks by the equally great singer-activist Paul Robeson, who had argued that it was "unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations." Robinson was vilified in some circles and denounced as a scoundrel who sold Robeson down the river.
Arnold Rampersad, author of the acclaimed "Jackie Robinson: A Biography," writes persuasively that Robinson "had no special desire to join a fight against Robeson." He argues that Robinson, himself a veteran, saw Robeson's remarks as an "implicit rebuke" to "black men from the American Revolution down to World War II" who "had struggled at every point for the right to be warriors in defense of the nation."
Robeson declined to take Robinson's testimony personally. "I have no quarrel with Jackie," he said. "I have a great deal of respect for him. He is entitled to his views. I feel that the House committee has insulted Jackie, it has insulted me, it has insulted the entire Negro race."
In the Capitol Rotunda on March 2, those insults were consigned to history. Praise was the order of the day for Robinson, who died in 1972 at age 53. President Bush described Robinson's brief, meteoric life as "a lesson for people coming up to see. One person can make a big difference in setting the tone of this country."
Indeed he can. When one considers the revolutionary changes in American society since Jackie Robinson's pioneering travails, it really isn't that difficult to envision a path extending from the Dodgers' dugout all the way to the State Department.