The Legacy of Jackie Robinson: His Big Steps Left a Legacy for All Time

Article excerpt

"A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Words on Jackie Robinson's tombstone.

Major League Baseball ordered up the patches and the commemorative, opening-day baseballs. General Mills put his image on a Wheaties boxes. Famous athletes are thanking him in a commercial to help Nike sell more shoes. At last count, 20 companies have been granted licenses to use Jackie Robinson's name or image to peddle products as baseball salutes the 50-year anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers: April 15, 1947. Robinson is a hot commodity now, but do we know what we're buying? What did Jackie Robinson mean then? What does he mean now? "You could easily divide American history into two periods - before Jackie and after Jackie," said the filmmaker Spike Lee. "The country is a much better place to live after Jackie." Fifty years ago today, it happened. A black man played major-league baseball. For the very first time. Jim Crow laws were still the order of the day. "Separate but equal" was the accepted standard for education. We did not yet know of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X. Blacks could not vote in the South. The military was segregated. Robinson took the first steps. When he walked on the big-league baseball field for the first time, America could not, would not, turn him back. Everything began to change, though not enough, beginning with Robinson's hitless afternoon in Brooklyn. Said Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, "The civil-rights movement started that day." So, how do you put that in a box score? "I hated all white people," said pitcher Joe Black, who often roomed with Robinson on the road. "I hated this country because I couldn't understand not being able to play. But after Jackie signed, I had a new dream. He allowed all young men to dream, and to make it come true. The 50th anniversary will be a waste of time if people don't remember how he helped race relations." Robinson's first steps . . . Cassius Clay takes a new name, becomes Muhammad Ali, wins a controversial court battle over his refusal to be inducted into the military on religious grounds - and later emerges as the most popular athlete in the world. Henry Aaron breaks Babe Ruth's career home-run record. Albert Belle is paid $11 million a year to play baseball. Tiger Woods wins the Masters. Lenny Wilkens becomes the NBA's winningest coach. Michael Jordan makes $40 million in annual endorsement deals. Somehow, all of this can be traced to Robinson's walk from the dugout to his position near the first-base bag at Ebbetts Field, 50 years ago today. On a pleasant Monday afternoon at Busch Stadium, Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton wore his colorful red socks high, rolling up his uniform-pants legs to reveal the old, Negro League style. "Thank God for Jackie," Clayton said. "Tuesday will be a day for reflection. …