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Jackie 70

Locker Room Talk: Jackie Robinson’s legacy is profound, but unfinished

What progress have we made with only two black managers and a dwindling number of black players?

Every year since 2009, Major League Baseball has celebrated the memory and legacy of Jackie Robinson.

The celebrations have been fantastic and in some cases profound.

Last year, the city of Philadelphia officially apologized for the racist taunts Phillies players directed at Robinson when they hosted the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This year, all major league clubs playing at home Saturday will commemorate Jackie Robinson Day with special on-field pregame ceremonies in their ballparks. Home clubs will feature Jackie Robinson Day jeweled bases and lineup cards.

In Los Angeles on Saturday, Robinson’s wife, Rachel, their daughter Sharon and son David, will be in attendance when the Dodgers unveil a statue at Dodger Stadium showing Robinson in his rookie season of 1947, sliding into home plate.

All of these festivities celebrate the 70th anniversary of Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

While the annual celebrations are fantastic, I wrestle with the same Jackie Robinson dilemma of celebrating the man, his courage and conviction but wondering whether the integration movement in which he played so vital a role was all that great for most African-Americans.

The gap remains between the glossy celebrations and the persistence of the exclusion Robinson fought so hard to eradicate. While baseball celebrates, each year the number of black players in baseball dwindles. According to a study by USA Today, there are fewer African-Americans in baseball than at any other time in the last 60 years. African-Americans comprise 7.1 percent of players on this year’s opening-day rosters.

There were no black managers when Robinson left the game in 1956. Today, there are two: the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and the Washington Nationals’ Dusty Baker.

In an essay she wrote a few years ago, Rachel Robinson addressed the gap between baseball’s celebration of her husband and the reality of so few African-American managers and front-office executives.

I had the honor of sitting at the table with Rachel Robinson and her daughter Sharon last month at the annual Jackie Robinson Foundation dinner in Manhattan.

“The fundamental questions that faced Jack in 1947 are abounding today,” she wrote. “We’ve got to go beyond celebrating the past and use our emotions/sentiments, ideas and analysis to move forward. This will be the greatest tribute to Jackie Robinson.”

One of the highlights of the evening was an announcement that the groundbreaking for the Jackie Robinson Museum will begin this spring. Major League Baseball has donated $1 million to fundraising efforts.

My larger dilemma with the integration initiative with which Robinson was so connected is the deleterious impact it had on many African-American businesses, notably Negro League baseball.

Indeed, integration was a mixed bag that would help destroy — or escalate the destruction — of Negro League baseball. That in turn would eventually dry up interest in baseball that at one point was a vital part of the black community’s economic structure.

Because blackness has never been one-size fits all, there were ferocious debates about the pros and cons of black players going to the major leagues.

In 1943, writer Joe Bostic cautioned: “Today, there are two Negro organized leagues, just at the threshold of emergence as real financial factors. Organized Negro baseball is a million-dollar business. To kill it would be criminal and that’s just what the entry of their players into the American and National Leagues would do.”

On the other hand, sportswriters Sam Lacy along with Wendell Smith were fierce proponents of integrating the game, from the playing field to the press box to hotels at spring training.

Integration was a powerful, tornadic force that shattered a relatively cohesive black community into millions of pieces. The community in many ways is still putting itself back together, defining and redefining what constitutes “black” in the 21st century.

This is the movement Robinson helped push forward. He became a polarizing figure, accused by some as representing white interests, embraced by others for shattering barriers. Robinson testified against artist and activist Paul Robeson in 1949 before the House Un-American Activities Committee. While Robeson certainly had his critics within the black community, he was greatly respected for his talents, his intellect and his commitment to black liberation.

Late in his life, Robinson admitted that he had made a mistake. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson wrote that he regretted the testimony.

“In those days, I had much more faith in the ultimate justice of the American white man than I have today,” he wrote. “I would reject such an invitation if offered now. I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truths about America’s destructiveness and I do have increased respect for Paul Robeson who, over a span of twenty years, sacrificed himself, his career and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”

Robinson may have learned a valuable lesson from Robeson, who was 21 years his senior.

Indeed, the significance Jackie Robinson — the question he asks — is whether you have the courage of your convictions — whatever those convictions might be.

For which causes are you willing to dedicate your life and give your life, if necessary?

Robinson was raised in an era in which barriers and obstacles prevented so many African-Americans from gaining first-class citizenship and access to better neighborhoods, better schools, better employment.

His mission – his life work, beginning 70 years ago today — was to tear down those barriers. Robinson never fully appreciated the extent to which he succeeded.

During a conversation in her office a few years ago, Rachel Robinson told me that her husband wondered whether it all had been worth the pain, the agony, the tortuous road to Calvary.

“He was so discouraged at the end of his life that change would not take place, that it would not be permanent, that it would not be expansive,” she said.

We are reminded each spring how powerfully he succeeded.

I might debate the aftermath of integration. There is no doubting Robinson’s courage and Rachel Robinson’s commitment to keeping her husband’s legacy burning brightly.

Nearly 56 years after his retirement from baseball, 45 years after his death, Robinson continues to resonate.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.