Jackie Robinson was in headlines this weekend when New York Yankees third baseman Josh Donaldson referred to Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson as “Jackie” during Saturday’s game, igniting a brouhaha between the two teams.
Whether Donaldson was joking around, as he insisted, or used Robinson’s name in a “racist” manner, as Sox manager Tony La Russa claimed, it was certain to be a hot button debate throughout baseball.
No matter where you stand on the issue, there’s no arguing Jackie Robinson’s name remains as relevant in baseball today as he was when he broke the major-league color barrier 75 years ago.
If cooler heads prevail, this could be a teachable moment for Donaldson and anyone else trying to understand why using Robinson’s name was considered “disrespectful” by Anderson and “racist” by La Russa.
Robinson endured slights both public and private throughout his career, as most fans surely know. The mere idea of a Black man entering the majors was such a sensitive topic in the late 1940s that Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey had an early meeting with broadcaster Red Barber to give him a heads-up.
Barber, who was born in Mississippi, was as popular a radio broadcaster in New York as Harry Caray later became in Chicago. According to Kostya Kennedy’s book, “True: The Four Seasons of Jackie Robinson,” Barber moved to Florida as a child and witnessed a Black man “tarred and feathered and forced through the streets by the Ku Klux Klan.”
Kennedy wrote Rickey wanted Barber to know of his plan to integrate the Dodgers so Barber could look for another job if the broadcaster felt he couldn’t call a game with white and Black players. After the meeting, Barber went home and told his wife, Lylah, what Rickey had said, then informed her he was going to leave the Dodgers.
Lylah said “let’s have a martini” and think things over for a few days. Kennedy wrote “Barber came to a couple of what he would characterize as ‘self-realizations’ about the randomness of his or any other person’s lineage and place in the world; about the second great commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor,’ and about his role as a reporter.”
Barber decided to stay and report what he saw. During a 1949 broadcast in St. Louis, he informed listeners Robinson and two other Black players were forced to stay in an inferior hotel in town without air conditioning.
“By informing his audience of Brooklyn Dodgers fans of these circumstances, Barber was in a small but direct way influencing how some people thought,” Kennedy wrote. “It was a vivid situation.”
Baseball honors Robinson every April 15 by having all its players, coaches and managers wear his No. 42. But once that annual celebration ends, it seems like Robinson’s legacy is forgotten for the rest of the season and he becomes just another great player from baseball’s past.
It doesn’t have to be that way, and perhaps Donaldson inadvertently helped some remember the true meaning of Robinson’s legacy with his ill-chosen remark during Saturday’s game in the Bronx.
For those looking to understand the importance of Robinson and other contributions of Black players to the game, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is updating an old exhibit with the help of Chicago Cubs great Fergie Jenkins.
“Twenty-five years ago when MLB did the 50th anniversary of Jackie breaking the color barrier, we put out our first Black baseball exhibit,” Josh Rawitch, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, told me Friday during Jenkins’ statue unveiling outside Wrigley Field. “This year we’ve announced we’re going to redo the whole thing. Obviously a lot has changed in 25 years.”
The exhibit at the Hall of Fame museum, previously called “Pride and Passion,” has been renamed “Ideals and Injustices,” a better description of the game’s refusal to integrate until Rickey’s bold move in 1947.
“It’s basically the story of Black baseball from mostly the Negro Leagues and up through Jackie and into the ‘70s,” Rawitch said. “It didn’t really get updated after ‘97, so now we’re going to have a whole new exhibit that will take over a portion of the Hall of Fame.
“We’ll also have a traveling exhibit that will go out to various Black communities and cities throughout the country. It’s a major initiative that we believe will tell the story of 150 years of Black baseball in America.”
Their stories will be told anew — and just in time for the return of Hall of Fame induction ceremonies from pandemic-related limitations in 2020 and ‘21. Negro League greats Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil — the first Black coach in the majors with the Cubs — will posthumously be inducted on July 24, along with former White Sox star Minnie Miñoso, who began his playing career in the all-Black league. Miñoso was considered “the Latino Jackie Robinson,” as Rawitch reminded me, and also endured bigotry and injustices during his major-league career.
Jenkins, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991, will serve on the advisory board for the new exhibit.
“We called him and he was excited to help us get the word out and tell the story right,” Rawitch said.
It’s doubtful the Donaldson-Anderson imbroglio will rate a mention in the Hall’s exhibit, and it might be forgotten by the time the next baseball controversy surfaces.
But it serves as a reminder of what the name Jackie Robinson still means to Black players who are following in Robinson’s footsteps and to the rich history of a game he helped change for the better.