Branch Rickey asked,
Can you take it?
I've got to,
Whispered Jackie Robinson.
Did he have the ability? How would he behave?
These questions magnified the meaning of
His every move,
On the field and off it, that first year.
For he was being asked nothing less than this:
To represent his whole race in a public testing of
Ability, will and character, to be the very living symbol of
What might be
A coming social revolution.
Black people knew that if Number 42 made it
Others would follow him,
And not into baseball alone . . .
And knew too that if he maintained
His quiet dignity and lonely courage
In the face of the racial taunts, beanballs and death threats
That a loud and ugly minority of bigots hurled his way
As he traveled from city to city,
Sympathy and support would swing his way,
Some people scoff and say change is inevitable,
That things happen just because the time is ripe.
But if that's so why does it never happen until
Someone brave enough to meet the ready moment
Looks around, sees no one else,
Feels the Hand on him, or her,
Then takes that first huge awful step,
And he was good:
'47 Rookie of the Year, '49 Batting Champ and MVP,
Sparkplug, in his ten years, of six Dodger pennant-winners,
And in the Hall of Fame.
But then diabetes and heart disease
Cut him down at fifty-three as no head-hunting pitcher
Or spikes-high baserunner ever did.
And we wonder too what toll was taken
By the heavy weight he carried years before,
When a nation watched transfixed and saw
One man, batting somehow for us all,
Stand alone and win.
Red Barber, born in turn-of-the-century Mississippi, was the Dodgers' radio man. At first he said he wouldn't call the games. But he changed his mind. And when it was all over he said, "I know that if I have achieved any understanding and tolerance in my life, . . . if I have been able to follow a little better the great second commandment, which is to love thy neighbor, . . . I thank Jackie Robinson. He did far more for me than I did for him."
Pub Date: 4/15/97