Imagine if Tiger Woods had to walk along the fairways at the staid Augusta National Golf Club and had to hear screams of "nigger" directed at him at every turn. Imagine if his peers voted not to play with him. Imagine Woods having to play under death threats.
Could Woods have performed under such pressure? Could Woods have succeeded?
If Jackie Robinson were alive today, he would be proud that this country has made enough strides to appreciate and embrace a talent like Woods, who on Sunday became the first person of African-American descent to win the Masters. And if Robinson were alive today, he might be left to wonder just how much more enjoyable his baseball career would have been had he not been forced to play in an environment filled with hate. At the time Robinson broke through in 1947, there were probably more talented players from the Negro Leagues who could have taken that historic first step. But what Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey - perhaps the most important person in the historic move, because he was willing to take a chance - wanted was a player who was mentally tough. He found that in Robinson, a World War II veteran who was a four-sport athlete at UCLA.
Those who played with and against Robinson call him one of the fiercest competitors they ever knew, probably comparable to what Michael Jordan is to the NBA today. So one can imagine how he burned inside when, as the only African-American player in the majors, Robinson had to walk into a clubhouse where his own teammates had signed a petition to have him removed from the roster.
It was probably more difficult being called "nigger" or "coon" by tens of thousands of fans every time he walked on the field. Or having pieces of watermelon hurled in his direction. Or having opposing pitchers throw at his head and opposing runners slide into bases spikes high.
Had Robinson retaliated in even the slightest way, the historic move by Rickey would have been considered a failure. But his tremendous restraint paved the way for the likes of Larry Doby (Cleveland Indians), Dan Bankhead (Dodgers), Hank Thompson and Willard Brown (both of the St. Louis Browns) to enter the league later that season and literally change the complexion of the game forever.
It's only a shame that some of the talented African-American baseball players of today aren't aware of their rich history. It was amazing several years back to read reports that some had no idea who Jackie Robinson was. And even more surprising when, in this, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's Dodgers debut, Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas said, during a program titled "Sports in Black and White," that he had little knowledge of the man who paved the way.
Could Woods have hit 330-yard drives during the hostile times that existed 50 years ago? The way this young man excels under pressure, who knows what he would been able to accomplish in a different era?
But let's make no mistake - with what Jackie Robinson endured, he is one of the most special human beings of our time. His ability to walk away from confrontations allowed a whole generation of African-American baseball players to follow. There was only one Jackie Robinson. And his legacy should not just be celebrated by baseball today, but every day.
Jerry Bembry covers the NBA.
! Pub Date: 4/15/97