Where've You Gone, Jackie Robinson?

By Harris, Mark | The Nation, May 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

Where've You Gone, Jackie Robinson?


Harris, Mark, The Nation


Midsummer 1949, age 30, playing his third year of baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Committee to testify on the question of whether black Americans would fight a war against Russia. The committee chairman hoped that Robinson would "give the lie" to Paul Robeson, actor, singer, beloved of the international left, who had said that black Americans would not fight Russians.

Robinson denied that he, Robeson or anyone could speak for 15 million people. He told the committee, he said afterward, "I didn't pretend to be an expert on Communism or any other kind of political `ism,' but I was an expert on being a colored American, having had thirty years of experience at it, and I knew how difficult it was to be in the minority."

Twenty-three years later, in 1972, in an autobiography completed almost in the hour of his death, weary and wise and multiply ill and wounded, Robinson asserted that he "never regretted" his appearance before the committee, though he resented its being featured in the press as one in which "I had put down Robeson hard. That wasn't true.... I have grown wiser and closer to painful truths about America's destructiveness. And I do have an increased respect for Paul Robeson, who, over the span of that 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."

To the end of his life, people said to Robinson, "What's your beef, Jackie? You've got it made." In the accepted sense, he had. But, like Robeson, he rejected the primacy of wealth and comfort, allying himself with persons and causes beyond self.

In the autobiography he wrote with the help of Alfred Duckett--I never Had It Made--Robinson posted a foreword whose abrupt end-statement may startle those of us who have thought of Robinson as essentially conventional. He mingles memories of triumphs with revelations of advancing skepticism, loss of patriotic faith. "There I was [September 30, 19471, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again.... Today as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey's drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty-five years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made."

Rags to riches, the life of Jackie Robinson has often been seen as a Horatio Alger story. The boy (a word he hated) did it all himself, with a bit of timely luck in the person of Dodgers president Branch Rickey.

For several years Rickey had conducted an extensive search to find the black baseball player most likely to succeed in the all-white American major leagues. In 1945 the player he settled on was Robinson. The first meeting of the two men has become legendary. Robinson accepted Rickey's stipulation that on the field he would never fight back against the brutes of the diamond certain to torment him in every way. "Suppose I was at shortstop. Another player comes down from first, stealing, flying in with spikes high, and cuts me on the leg. As I feel the blood running down my leg, the white player laughs in my face. `How do you like that, nigger boy?' he sneers. Could I turn the other cheek?" "Robinson," said Rickey, "I'm looking for a [black] ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back."

For three seasons, first in a minor league and then for two years in Brooklyn, Robinson maintained an outward passivity unnatural to a player in a big-money game renowned for its system of challenge with a lethal ball and a hardwood bat. …

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