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History, made between the lines Simply by playing baseball, Robinson changed the nation; AN AMERICAN HERO

Fifty years ago today, Jackie Robinson made history. It was, on the face of it, a subversively simple act: He showed up. He walked to first base, tapped the bag with his spikes, maybe rubbed some dirt on his hands. In other words, Robinson did what baseball players had been doing for 100 years. And that was it. Instant history. A nation forever changed. The world, and not just the baseball world, turned upside down.

Fifty years later, it's fair to ask how such a routine act - climbing the dugout steps, taking care to step over the foul line, pounding the glove, bending over in anticipation of a struck ball - could be such a big deal. But it was. It is, even today.

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You know why. Because Jackie Robinson was black, and every single other person connected with the national pastime in largely segregated America was white.

That fact, that so-obvious fact, must seem hard to fathom now for the many Americans who think the problems of race begin and end in an O.J. Simpson jury room.

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Fifty years ago, blacks were banned from baseball and from all major-league professional sports. You don't need to be a historian to know that; all you need is access to ESPN "SportsCenter" and its Jackie Robinson celebration updates. Some off-field history may have been forgotten, however. For example:

Fifty years ago, six black World War II veterans were lynched in a three-week period.

Fifty years ago, through much of the South, there were white-only restrooms, white-only drinking fountains, white-only lunch counters. Blacks not only couldn't live with whites, but they also couldn't even be buried with them. Interracial marriage was not just forbidden by custom; it was against the law. And whistling at the wrong woman could be a hanging offense. No wonder: In Montgomery, Ala., it was actually illegal for blacks and whites to play checkers together on public property.

Fifty years ago, when Jim Crow reigned, there was apartheid in the South, where as much as 70 percent of the black population lived in poverty. And conditions weren't so much better in the North, the new plantation.

A baseball game, somehow, would help change that.

Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey would help change that. His motives were probably manyfold. Maybe he thought segregation was wrong. Maybe he thought he could get a competitive edge. Maybe the pressure from civil rights groups in New York forced his hand or moved his conscience. In any event, he signed Jackie Robinson, and soon Robinson would play in the major leagues.

Historians will tell you this one act - one man, playing a child's game - ranked with Brown v. Board of Education, with Rosa Parks and her bus seat, with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, with Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights Act, and they are probably right.

Those of us who follow sports are accustomed to hype. Games are life and death. A Super Bowl, wrapped between commercials, is watched by 140 million people. Nike builds an empire based on athletic shoes. Even as schools fail, cities pay hundreds of millions of dollars for stadiums, the modern-day cathedrals. Do we know what we worship?

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But this was different. This once, what happened between the white lines was as important as anything that happened outside them.

"When something happens that turns out to be so successful, it's seen as inevitable," says Jules Tygiel, a San Francisco State professor and Robinson biographer. "Nothing surrounding Jackie was inevitable. This was an experiment. And experiments can fail."

Some game.

Because it is 50 years and because it is risk-free, Major League Baseball is finally honoring Jackie Robinson. There are Robinson events wherever you look, generally involving the latest in designer patch-wear.

Not that everyone is entirely thrilled.

Frank Robinson, the Hall of Fame player and first black manager, who now sits home in Los Angeles without a job because 50 years after Jackie Robinson there is still only one black general manager, is one who thinks the celebration comes a little late.

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"They shouldn't have waited 50 years," Robinson says, "to recognize what he accomplished. If they'd come along in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years, then the 50th year would have been a nice, big celebration. Don't get me wrong. I'm glad they're doing it now. But it never should have taken this long, not for what Jackie did."

Here's the theme of the celebration: Jackie Robinson did a great thing a long time ago when things were terrible. Here's the subtext: Things must be pretty good now.

It's much the same as when schoolchildren celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. His life has become what educators call a value tale, meaning he gets the full great-man treatment, the full canonization. They focus on the "I Have a Dream" speech of reconciliation and ignore his fight on behalf of the poor and the otherwise disenfranchised. They don't ask what King would think of race relations today. That's too complex, and we like our great-man tales simple.

The Jackie Robinson tale is simply told. He was a great athlete who challenged the evil men of his day, and the evil men lost. Branch Rickey told Robinson that he would have to endure all the taunts, live through all the threats, take all the petty and not-so-petty insults, turn the other cheek. And Robinson, a proud man of some temper, swore that he would. And he did.

Years later, Robinson recalled in Look magazine his conversation with Rickey: "He told me that one wrong move on my part would not only finish the chances for all Negroes in baseball, but it would set the cause of the Negro in America back 20 years.

"I was on guard night and day."

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Everyone was watching. Derrick Bell, who was the first black professor at Harvard Law school, remembers how everyone watched and the burden that Robinson carried, just as Joe Louis had carried it before him.

"When I grew up in Pittsburgh, the great hero in the black community - I don't think my parents knew who [W.E.B.] DuBois was - was Joe Louis. When he fought, it was almost like a religious ritual. Everyone would gather around the radio. And when he defeated whatever opponent he had, you could open the windows and hear the celebration. My father, he would shoot his pistol out the door. It seems crazy now. But we had so few things to be proud of, so few things that whites could not ignore.

"And that's what Jackie Robinson did. He was an important symbol. I don't know if symbols always translate into policy, but Jackie Robinson translated into a great deal of pride."

It was just after World War II. Many blacks had been in the 'D military, had gone to Europe, had seen a world where racism wasn't the order of the day. These blacks came home and wanted more. They wanted part of the American dream.

But Jackie Robinson showed that the dream might be workable. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play on the same fields as white Americans, with everyone watching, showed that blacks could succeed. Nobody could argue. Robinson could hit, run, field, and he did it with a style and even with an eloquence. It gave many blacks confidence - a confidence that would grow as the civil rights movement grew - and it gave many whites pause. Suddenly, people on both sides of the racial divide had to challenge their own assumptions.

That's all Jackie Robinson did when he took his place on a baseball field.

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It's easy to honor Jackie Robinson because he's actually worth honoring. After he retired, he lent his name to the civil rights movement when other black athletes did not. He took seriously his position in the African-American community and in the community at large. He died young, at age 53, of complications from diabetes, and on his tombstone they put these words: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

The words are perfect. And they show how Robinson's story is not a sports story, even if it was told on the sports pages.

Robinson understood his position. He was unafraid to use his name, either in a business deal for a Harlem bank or in support of marchers in Birmingham. Critics said at the time he could have done more in civil rights days. Maybe he could have. But try measuring him against today's athlete.

All arguments as to whether athletes are role models or should be role models stop at the mention of Jackie Robinson's name.

Of course, Robinson had little choice.

"There was so much riding on him," says Ronald Walters, a University of Maryland professor who regularly comments on the African-American condition. "Black people's hopes and fears rose on what he did. If he did well, people celebrated. If he did poorly, they were dejected. Today, fortunately, no one has to carry the weight of all that expectation."

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But, even with fewer burdens, Walters says, today's black athletes don't measure up. He cites Michael Jordan, who could put his influence to better use than in hawking hamburgers or shoes. When people attacked Nike for selling $175 Air Jordans to poor urban kids, Jordan basically said it wasn't his problem.

"He was AWOL on that issue," Walters says. "I think he's a living argument against role modelism."

tTC Of course, now they're selling Robinson in much the same way that Jordan sells Gatorade. He's being neatly packaged, and everyone can have a piece of him - on Coke bottles, on McDonald's trays, on Wheaties boxes. As the second millennium comes to a close, the selling of Robinson is as inevitable as the celebration and perhaps as meaningful.

No one can be surprised. Spike Lee made a movie biography of Malcolm X, and the enduring image is of the proliferation of "X" caps.

Everyone knows Jackie Robinson's story. You've seen the movie or read the book, or you must have caught one of the retrospectives. Robinson was a four-sport star at UCLA. He went into the Army, where he challenged racism and was even court-martialed for it. He won. It seems like he always won. Rickey picked Robinson to be the first black major-leaguer because he was not simply an athlete. He was a fully realized person.

Everyone knows the story line. How he took the taunts. How some of his Dodgers teammates demanded to be traded. How some of his opponents threatened to strike. How Phillies manager Ben Chapman made his life hell. How teammate Pee Wee Reese, the good white guy and a Southerner yet, stood up for Robinson.

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Everyone knows how the story ended. But the stories continued. You can take your pick of them. This one dates to 1963. Jackie Robinson had been retired for seven years. And Reggie Smith, a 17-year-old minor-leaguer who had grown up in relatively unsegregated Los Angeles, arrived in the small western Virginia town of Wytheville to play for the Twins' minor-league team there.

The team had taken the bus up from Florida and was heading to the hotel where the players stayed, when Smith, who didn't even realize what was happening, was sneaked in through the back door. The next day, he was told he couldn't stay there. The hotel was segregated. He would have to stay at a boarding house on the other side of town.

Smith walked the three miles and cried the entire way.

"I didn't know," Smith, now a Dodgers hitting coach, would say years later, "whether to cry or to be angry."

He decided on angry. And so he challenged segregation wherever he went.

He demanded to be served in the same restaurants as his teammates. He would be, too. And then he would watch as they'd break the plates he'd eaten on and throw away the silverware he'd eaten with.

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"I'm lucky I'm not hanging from some tree," he would say.

That was 1963.

That was one small story among thousands.

And now baseball wants to celebrate the 50th anniversary as if one brave man, all those many years ago, solved all the problems of racism in baseball. And yet, it was only 10 years ago, on the 40th anniversary, that Al Campanis gave his blacks "lack the necessities" commentary on "Nightline."

At 50, nobody's guilty anymore. Among Robinson's contemporaries, the fans all remember cheering him, the players all remember welcoming him with open arms. Robinson biographer Tygiel says we shouldn't be surprised to see revisionism at work.

"In the 19th century, they had an expression: 'Getting right with Lincoln,' " he says. "Now I have an idea everyone wants to get right with Jackie on his 50th anniversary."

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And so baseball, with its guilt, and America, with its guilt, will honor Robinson today with many speeches and fine words and great thoughts. Then the games will resume. And you can't help but wonder if we'll remember what we were celebrating by tomorrow.

Blacks in baseball

List of first black players on each of the 16 major-league teams before expansion:American League

;/ Team ............. Player ............ Year

Cleveland Indians ... Larry Doby ........ 1947

St. Louis Browns .... Hank Thompson ..... 1947

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Chicago White Sox ... Sam Hairston ...... 1951

Phila. Athletics .... Bob Trice ......... 1953

Washington Senators.. Webbo Clarke ...... 1955

New York Yankees .... Elston Howard ..... 1955

Detroit Tigers ...... Ozzie Virgil ...... 1958

Boston Red Sox ...... Pumpsie Green ..... 1959

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National league

0 Team ............... Player ........... Year

Brooklyn Dodgers ...... Jackie Robinson .. 1947

New York Giants ....... Monte Irvin, ..... 1949

....... Hank Thompson

Boston Braves ......... Sam Jethroe ...... 1950

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Chicago Cubs .......... Ernie Banks ...... 1953

Cincinnati Reds ....... Chuck Harmon ..... 1954

St. Louis Cardinals ... Bill Greason ..... 1954

Pittsburg Pirates ..... Curt Roberts ..... 1954

Philadelphia Phillies.. John Kennedy ..... 1957

Pub Date: 4/15/97


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