Jackie Robinson signed a contract for $5,000 with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 when he was 28. He played 151 of 154 games, batted .297, and won Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers made the World Series and Jackie played all seven games, batting .259, while another rookie, Yogi Berra, hit .169 in that Series and Joe Dimaggio batted .231. Nearly every baseball fan still knows about Jackie Robinson and for non-baseball fans, his is one of the most -recognized names.
“Do you like baseball?”
“Do you know who Jackie Robinson was?”
“Sure. He broke the color barrier.”
Jackie played for ten seasons–twenty-eight years old is an old rookie–and retired with a lifetime batting average of .311, as well as being named Most Valuable Player for 1949 after hitting .343 with 124 runs batted in and leading the league in steals (37), and, for you true baseball nerds, a 9.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). He stole home twenty times in his career.
I love baseball, baseball statistics, and baseball biographies, so I could go on for a long time.* But it struck me that, until recently, I have accepted all this unquestioningly.
Specifically, we declare and propagate this statement: “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.”
He broke the what?
Language matters. Of course a writer like me thinks that. But it matters for everyone. Words create. Words build. Words destroy. How you talk to your mate, your children, your parents, your co-worker, the person serving you coffee, changes their lives, and yours, for good or bad. I hope I don’t have to convince you of that. The terms in which we think impact how we understand and act in the world.
I’ve started imagining that on April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson put on his uniform, pulled on his cleats, grabbed his glove, and ran through this barrier of color, shattering it, sending shards of…color(?) in all directions. Are we talking about a rainbow here? Or some wall-like obstacle that American Ninja Warriors would have to smash through?
I could go on amusing myself with these descriptions all day. But I would argue Jackie Robinson didn’t “break the color barrier.” He did sign a contract and play professional baseball, very successfully. What was this “color barrier?”
You mean “racist people who opposed and literally fought, with every means at their disposal, against letting blacks play professional baseball in the Major Leagues due to the color of their skin and not based on those players’ ability?”
One part of this story that I hope any baseball fan of my age knows: Jackie Robinson was not the first black player with the ability or talent to play Major League baseball. Not close. Many baseball fans also know that a Hall of Famer and one of the early great players, Cap Anson, took a loud, public, aggressive leadership role in forcing blacks out of profession baseball. History–meaning REAL-LIFE events, today will be history tomorrow–has many crossroads. Baseball began to integrate and could have continued as an integrated sport in the 1880’s, which arguably could have changed how Major League Baseball formed and, later, how professional basketball and football followed baseball’s lead (as they did by enforcing segregation). Instead,
“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”Quoted from “It’s Time for Baseball to Acknowledge Cap Anson’s Role in Erecting Its Color Barrier.”
That doesn’t describe a “color barrier” that just appeared one day or existed ex nihilo, certainly not one dropped by God from heaven. That’s a racist man taking action that leads and influences others. Leadership matters.
When we talk about Jackie Robinson “breaking the color barrier,” we make impersonal and objective something horribly personal and subjective. If you haven’t watched the movie 42, please see it. I can’t fathom how many times Jackie was called the N-word or endured other racist actions. That wasn’t “a color barrier.” That was racist people expressing their racist views of a tremendous baseball player and, as we learned, a tremendous human being.
We’re not those people, of course. I’m guessing none of us sat in the stands and shouted “N—–!” while Robinson made a play at second, stole a base, or hit a double. (What I wouldn’t give to sit in the stands and watch Jackie play a game!) We quickly–I’m going to say instantly–distance ourselves from “those people.” They don’t represent us; their actions and attitudes do not reflect ours. Wouldn’t we rather sit and have dinner or a beer with Jackie Robinson than with any of them?
But I want to ask why we use terms like “color barrier?”
Someone, probably not you but someone you know, will object, “It’s just words. We know what we mean!”
I wish. I wish it made no difference how we talked about these things and we could all rely on our invariably good intentions and our follow-through on those intentions. No, it makes a huge difference. When we use neutral terms, we more easily convince ourselves it wasn’t so bad and certainly we have it fixed by now.
We’re inclined to distance ourselves; we prefer to neuter and sterilize these parts of our history. Makes it sound nicer to say “Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier!” than “Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and others in the Dodgers organization overcame the blatant racists and also all the passive racists who benefitted from an unjust system, i.e. systemic racism.”
Remember, there was no written rule stating black players could not play. It just so happened that from the 1890s until 1947, not one black player was found who could compete at that level. Or…the pressure and certain backlash against any team’s owner or general manager choosing to sign a black player kept any of them from signing a black player. What do we call that? “Bigot barrier?” “Racist gauntlet?” Maybe “systemic racism.”
“Mike, Jackie played! He did it! Look how many black players and every other nationality Major League baseball has (and overpays) now! Why bring this up?”
If we can admit this “color barrier” euphemism whitewashes a confrontation with our racism and white supremacy (yes, white supremacy: only whites were allowed to play Major League baseball, in spite of the reality that many black players were as good or better than the white players in said League**), we take a step toward having the courage to acknowledge and examine how we euphemize our current systemic injustice. What racism do we allow to pass unconsidered today?
Language matters. Language provides the framework through which we understand, describe, and interact with our world. Language and culture literally form our thoughts. It’s easier to talk about 1950’s racism than current racism, just as it’s easier to talk about blatant acts of racism by others than it is to identify aversive racism in myself. But confronting our acceptance and minimizing of racism in our history demands self-reflection on why we have chosen comforting denial over painful truth.
I’m not an expert or authority on any of this. I’m just doing what I do, putting my journey into words and inviting you to think through with me how we got here and where we go next.
What are other examples of current terms that either hide our past from ourselves or sanitize it to make it more palatable?
**Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were as good or better than Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle, for example. I’m not stating that as inarguable fact, but demonstrating my point. How do we prove black players were qualified, when they weren’t allowed to play and prove themselves? We consider comparisons with the first generation of black players post-integration. Or we ask were Josh Gibson and Satchell Paige better than the worst contracted MLB white players in 1937?