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Jackie Robinson’s righteous rage fueled his passion for change

Baseball was only his first stage, followed by politics and corporate America

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

— James Baldwin in 1962

On Monday, Major League Baseball will continue to honor the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s modern color barrier on this date in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His No. 42 was retired throughout the major leagues in 1997.

Born in Cairo, Georgia, and reared in Pasadena, California, Robinson had he lived, would have turned 100 years old on Jan. 31.

He lives.

Since April 15, 1947, every American who has done great things that hadn’t been done before has walked in Robinson’s footsteps, including Barack Obama’s triumphant march to the White House. Robinson’s mortal body succumbed to heart disease, diabetes and grief in 1972. (In 1971, his namesake and oldest of three children died at the age of 24 in a car crash.)

The elder Jackie Robinson and the generation he embodied was, in part, motivated by a righteous rage, whether it was in major league ballparks, the nation’s courts, voting booths or the streets. They were, as the poet Sterling Brown once wrote, strong men (and women) who kept coming so that those who followed didn’t have to travel so far.

They, like Robinson, were caught in a rundown between one base and another, between opponents trying to throw them out, between where they had been and where they hoped to go.

On Monday, some will think of Robinson stealing home, including in the 1955 World Series. I’ll think of him surviving and tormenting his foes during the rundowns.

I’ll also think of his righteous rage. I’ll think of the rage that had him dunk the basketball as a UCLA player (he won letters in track, basketball, baseball and football at UCLA) before America became involved in World War II. I’ll think of the righteous rage that made him refuse to move to the back of the bus as a military officer who served his country during World War II, and I’ll think of the righteous rage that made Robinson refuse to stand to salute his nation’s flag later in his life. He knew that his country should do better to combat and overcome white-hot, anti-black racism. And Robinson, ever the race man and patriot, worked tirelessly to make it so.

Before he died in 1972, he said he wanted to see the day that Major League Baseball integrated the ranks of managers as he had integrated the players. Last season, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the first franchise to integrate, and the Boston Red Sox, the last major league franchise to integrate (1959), played in the World Series. Both were led by managers of color: Alex Cora of the Red Sox and Dave Roberts of the Dodgers. Both managers had played for the Sox and Dodgers.

Somewhere, Jackie smiled.

In some ways Robinson, who retired after the 1956 season, prefigured today’s players with multiple interests. He played himself in a biopic about his life. He wrote a newspaper column. In a leading magazine he presented the news that he was retiring and going to work in corporate America.

But the pigeon-toed giant was from another age too. He lived a serious life and talked about serious things.

He lived a life of righteous rage, just as Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates did on the baseball field and Muhammad Ali did in the ring during much of his boxing career.

Today, far too many pro athletes behave as if they are children. Russell Westbrook, a brilliant Oklahoma City guard, behaves on the court as if his opponents stole his pacifier. Kyrie Irving, a Boston Celtics guard, circles around the nonsense that the Earth might be flat, sticking out his tongue at hundreds of years of scientific consensus. And every year, or so it seems, a new NFL star wide receiver appears destined to squander his great gifts and talents.

Robinson understood the challenges he faced and the stakes for which he was playing. He stole home for himself, his team and for future generations, even those who might not appreciate his sacrifice and daring. More importantly, he survived and prospered in the rundown, the space between where he was and where he hoped to help lead the nation.

On Monday, we’ll have another opportunity to cheer Robinson. We’ll have another opportunity to laud Branch Rickey, who ran the old Brooklyn Dodgers. He chose Robinson, combustible yet disciplined, as the subject of what was called the “great experiment.” And we’ll get another opportunity to salute Rachel Robinson, his widow and partner.

On Tuesday, we can redouble our efforts to live by Jackie’s example.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.