AS AMERICA celebrates the 50th anniversary of Negro baseball player Jackie Robinson's being allowed to play in the lily-white major leagues, I think back, too.
Not to 1947. I'm not quite that old. But to 1986. That's when my 5-year-old son began playing T-ball. Baseball has been his preferred sport ever since, which is not typical of today's basketball-oriented African-American children.
My own fond childhood memories of baseball are not as a participant. I was always the boy who got chosen with a moan when there was no one else left to select for a playground game.
But I always loved the sport, having enjoyed countless hours watching Saturday afternoon games on black-and-white TV. Sitting on the floor, next to Daddy, as he dozed in his chair after a long week of work hauling furniture.
My daughter, who played for a while and then stopped, is now on her high school softball team. But my son never quit baseball.
That he has been able to compete for spots on teams for 11 years is some indication of his skill. Never a star, he's been good enough to win some games with clutch hitting and fielding.
Which brings me back to Jackie Robinson. He had to be more than a good ball player to integrate the majors. Others in the Negro Leagues were as good or better. Many who grew up in the South knew how to withstand the merciless taunting by bigots.
Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson for his team because he was a "super nigger," a term black people use among themselves in discussing the need to be "extraordinarily good" to get the same job a white man or woman has only to be "good" to get.
Robinson was a college graduate and former Army officer. By most accounts, he was as good-looking, articulate, courteous and well-groomed as any diplomat.
Like Robinson, my son has frequently been the only African-American player on the field. I have seen other black boys give up baseball, claiming prejudice because they spent too much time riding the bench.
Mostly, though, they had taken up the sport late and still lacked skills. Athleticism isn't enough to play baseball. Just ask basketball great Michael Jordan, whom I saw struggle with a bat for the minor-league Birmingham Barons.
But I have also seen kids-team coaches who wanted a Jackie Robinson or Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey Jr. when, if the child was a different shade, they might settle for a Mark Lemke or B.J. Surhoff.
Yes, that happens too often outside sports as well.
I grew up when African-American children were taught by their parents and teachers that they had to be better than good to compete in a white-dominated society.
The lesson is not stressed as much today, as many black kids naively reject the idea that they should have to do anything special just to be treated as equals.
I once had a class of black teens look at me like I was crazy for sug- gesting they might dress differently or temporarily change a hairstyle for a job interview.
As one of the nation's most recognized African-Americans, Robinson became a frequent spokesman for civil rights after his baseball career ended. He always reminded people that his success was nothing unless it opened the doors to success for others.
"We've got to remember that there are so many others to pull along the way," he said. "The further they go, the further we go."
So, here's to Jackie Robinson, who had to be better than good. Here's to all the old Negro Leaguers deemed not good enough. And here's to baseball, where on the field it's skill that counts, but first somebody has to give you a chance to play. Right, that's life.
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 4/12/97