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Jackie Robinson“Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? That is the only time a man can be brave.”                 – George R.R. Martin

At 1700 Bedford Ave. in Brooklyn, NY, a small plaque is barely visible on the corner of the blighted facade of a high-rise apartment building. It reads, matter-of-factly, “1962: This is the former site of Ebbets Field.” A cluster of overgrown bushes seems to intentionally shroud the marble plate, sheltering the simple reminder of the historical magnitude of the site from the class inequality, poverty and crime that today consume these blocks.

The phrase on the plaque is so terse, so abrupt, so unceremonious–almost an affront to the sacralized history of the ballpark. One wonders if a local petty thief stole an adjacent relief plaque bearing Robinson’s likeness and a longer version of the story. That didn’t happen, but perhaps such a memorial has never been erected precisely because it would be stolen.

In the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, there’s no cinematic end. No museum to commemorate the Brooklyn Dodgers. No reference to Jackie Robinson, who on April 15, 1947, broke the MLB’s color barrier at Ebbets. Not even a baseball field across the street. Just a low-rent high-rise epitomizing the urban decay of Brooklyn. flanked by more rows of the same–an infinity mirror of tenements and poverty.

Despite what some may say, it’s not shameful that the area has become this way. The site is of massive significance, but today’s residents have no duty to honor the site’s august past. Although today’s concrete descendant of Ebbets Field may not endow the proper respect that the site deserves, Major League Baseball has for years taken the initiative to remember the momentous victory that Jackie Robinson achieved that day – a day that occurred more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement even began to enter the consciousness of the public. When Robinson trotted out to 1st base that day in 1947, he entered terra incognita, embraced inherent danger, and overcame his own internal fears. The day occurred seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education, eight years before Rosa Parks took a stand by taking a seat, 10 years before the Little Rock Nine were brought to school by a military escort, 16 years before “I Have A Dream,” and 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That is simply astounding. His bravery was truly a symbol of racial comity and moral fortitude before its time. Robinson did not want to become a martyr, but accepted the possibility.

Robinson endured a fusillade of racially charged insults that would make a normal human being lash out. He never did. True to Manager Branch Rickey’s estimation, Robinson never cracked despite his insides boiling with resentment. It’s a profound story of heroism and something that needs no embellishment. It can be told without hyperbole to any child who asks why every player in baseball wears #42 for a day. One aspect of the story often glossed over is the role of religion. Rickey and Robinson connected over a shared passionate Christian faith. This faith led Rickey to not just look for a player to break the color barrier, but a player who could do so while adhering to a strategy of non-retaliation. The strategy was inspired by Gandhi’s model of nonviolent dissent and foreshadowed the role of peaceful, direct-action protests in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Rickey’s plan required more than athletic ability. It required a saintly arete and a willingness to turn the other cheek amidst fire –as Jesus put it, to “resist not evil.” In Rickey’s initial proposal to Robinson, he famously quipped that he was looking for “a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.” Robinson prayed every night for the strength to continue, endowing himself with the faith that God’s Providence would protect.

Robinson influenced society not only by wielding a baseball bat but also a pen. He maintained epistolary contact with every American president from 1956 to 1972, imploring each, sometimes combatively, to match his own courage and to seize the opportunity to intervene in the moral history of the nation. Perhaps his most explosive line was written in 1958 to President Dwight Eisenhower. It simply read, “17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change.” Baseball provided Robinson with the pulpit to effect change, but only through his bravery, intelligence and perseverance did he truly give life to that potential.

Cultural diversity remains a defining aspect of Major League Baseball, but its survival now seems perilous. Baseball continues to lose traction with inner-city youth despite pouring millions of dollars into inner-city development programs. These programs provide salutary benefits to many children but are of a more participatory nature than their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts that actively recruit elite athletes. The programs do help some black youths reach high levels of the sport, but the intent is very different from the league’s goals in Latin America.

Going forward, the league must not leave this problem to posterity. It should augment its current participatory model, begin to allocate a portion of inner-city expenditures to developing high-level baseball players and enable them to compete against other elites. It would be a tragedy if one day soon, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day without a single African-American competing. Ebbets Field may have met a cruel demise, but with the proper attention and investment, Jackie Robinson’s great contribution to baseball will not follow the same path.

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