The commissioner of baseball Bowie Kuhn, has declared this a week of tribute to Jackie Robinson, who 30 years ago became the first black man to play in the major leagues. A peanut farmer from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, sent a message of praise in memory of the dark flame in Dodger blue, and Kuhn read it aloud at a luncheon today. The commissioner was proud.
Everyone seemed proud. Politicians from eight states and 16 cities sent proclamations, Kuhn said. The very mayor of Blackout City, Abe Beame, was to say what a great guy Robinson was. The response to baseball's tribute, Kuhn said, has been so great it will last not one week but three.
Everyone was proud of that. People in the ballroom of the New Sheraton Hotel were moved to applause. At one of the front tables, Monte Irvin clapped vigorously. Irvin was one of the pioneer black players, a star with the New York Giants, and now he works in the commissioner's office. He's an assistant something-or-other. The highest-ranked black man in baseball. Monte Irvin.
Here they were, two or three hundred people, gathered for a good cause. Robinson's widow, Rachel, a brilliant and beautiful women, has formed the Jackie Robinson Foundation to give financial, academic, cultural and artistic help to school-age children whose potential might be suffocated by poverty.
Along with a board of directors that includes Howard Cosell, Sidney Poitier and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mrs. Robinson wants to raise by private donations $250,000 this year "to perpetuate the goals and spirit and work begun by Jack." She wants to help children "in a flight against despair," children "who are victimiged by the unrelenting negative pressures that still - I repeat, still - affect our society."
Maybe no one working in front of a million eyes ever knew the pressure that fell on Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the grandson of slaves who by his wonderful athletic ability and his promise to suffer fools silently became the first black man in a game white America loved as its own child.
"Jackie Robinson was given an opportunity and he made the very best of it," Bowie Kuhn said yesterday. The commissioner's voice was very strong when he said that. Please read the words again, and you'll see Kuhn was proud of Jackie Robinson. The commissioner was proud that a black man, in the face of prejudice, succeeded when given an opportunity.
How sad that the commissioner should use those words . . . "given an opportunity." How sad that 30 years later the Emperor of Baseball does not realize that no one gave Jackie Robinson anything. He earned everything - every at-bat, every hit-by-pitch, every stolen base, every championship. If baseball believes it gave - how condescending that word - Robinson an opportunity, then it is no surprise that today baseball has no black manager, no black owner, no black president, one black general manager. Twently-six teams, one black boss.
As luncheons go, today's was nice enough, even touching at moments. Pee Wee Reese, the Dodger captain when Robinson joined the team, said he didn't know why a white boy from Kentucky turned out to be the black mans' friend. Except for this: "I put myself in his shoes. Pee Wee Reese trying to break into a black league. Ain't no way I could have done it."
The Dodgers' black stars of those days were on the dais: Joe Black, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Campy, the Hall of Fame catcher, now a paraplegic, has been "laying on my stomach" in a hospital for a year and two weeks, he said. "No way in the world I'd miss this, though," he said "Jackie did so much."
Willie Mays spoke. "I look at my house, and I look at Jackie Robinson," he said. "I look at the dollars in my pocket, and I look at Jackie Robinson. He made it all possible."
Nice enough. They remembered a great man. Above the speaker's lecturn was a large photograph of Robinson stealing home, sliding past a groping catcher. In 10 seasons, Robinson hit .311 and helped the Dodgers into six World Series. And the numbers mean nothing, for it was Robinson's indomitability that mattered. He would, by damn, win.
It makes you wonder. Only five or six years ago, only a little while before he died, at a time when he was going blind. Robinson came to an All-Star Game and people asked him about the black man in baseball. And Robinson, who earned everything and was given nothing, who learned rage at the White man's condescensions, said baseball would please him only when he could see black men in positions of authority. And now they have a tribute to Jackie Robinson, and you wonder if they waited until he was gone to be sure he wouldn't tell them what to do with their tribute.
Billy Rowe remembers Robinson. A public relations man in New York, Rowe in 1947 was a photographer asked by the Dodgers' boss. Branch Rickey, to drive Robinson around to spring-training camps.
"In his days after playing, baseball never reached out for Jackie Robinson," Rowe said. "He is responsible for all these new terms. He brought in a whole new crowd of spectators. What a great thing he did for baseball. And baseball never reached out for him."
Over in a corner, talking to a couple of newspapermen, Pee Wee Reese said he once asked Robinson, in his retirement, if blacks and whites could ever get along. "Jackie said yes, but I said I doubt it," Reese said. Not enough human beings are strong enough to stand in the other man's shoes.
And at the speaker's lecturn, with the room practically empty, a man was taking down the picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home. The man was the highest-ranking black man in baseball. Monte Irvin. Cleaning up.