By John P. Lopez
Isn’t it nice of so many sports outlets and media giants to tell us this week that the war Jackie Robinson fought has been won.
But there’s one very important thing to note: It hasn’t.
The same week as the release of the movie, 42, which chronicles Robinson’s might and courage, we have heard from the weak-minded whose biases are thinly masked.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith was called lazy by the same NFL draft analyst, Nolan Nowracki, who called Cam Newton, a “fraud, narcissist and a con-artist.” — all evidence to the contrary. And Japanese pitching phenom Yu Darvish heard racially-charged cackles from the Minute Maid Park grandstand on what could have been a perfect day. Even Astros color commentator Alan Ashby said, kiddingly, after the perfect-game effort was broken up, “That’ll force a guy to learn some of the language here in America.
Those two incidents, transposed with so many sportscasters pulling muscles as they pat the sports culture on the back for “inclusion” and “equality” reminded me of a conversation I had with Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson.
She told me about the test Branch Rickey put her husband through as Rickey tried to find out if Robinson had what it took to ignore the racists and fight for the greater good.
Rickey’s interview with Robinson lasted more than three hours, covering every conceivable reaction and expectation Robinson would face in a white world.
At one point, Rickey went into a role-playing exchange with Robinson, asking, “What if I’m a hotel clerk, you come in with the rest of your team and I tell you, “we don’t let niggers sleep here.’ What do you do?”
“What if I’m sitting behind the dugout and I call you, “nigger boy’ or “watermelon eater?’ ” Rickey said. “… I want you to be the first Negro player in the Major Leagues. Can you take it? Can you take everything that’s going to come your way?”
“Do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?” Robinson told Rickey.
“No, I want a player with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey responded. “You’ve got to do this job with base hits and stolen bases and fielding ground balls, Jackie. Nothing else.”
Rachel Robinson told me the reality of the hate and racism was much worse than Rickey ever said it would be.
“That first spring training was a nightmare,” Rachel Robinson said. “There was so much degradation. There was bigotry like we had never encountered. There were a lot of threats in the air. We’d hear rumors of organized boycotts. They permeated our environment, but they were not the kinds of things we could take seriously. Those kinds of threats had to be handled by baseball.”
Nearly 70-years later, a black quarterback was called lazy. An Asian pitcher heard racially-charged jokes and heckles. Similar biases — some subtle, some not so subtle — permeate sports the world over.
Jackie Robinson was an American hero who changed how we look at ourselves. He changed the game, in every way. He opened doors and broke down barriers.
He deserves every tribute and every accolade. And we owe it to him to keep fighting the war.