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EIGHTEEN YEARS AGO, in 1954. Jackie Robinson boarded a plane with an umpire who had known him since 1946 when Robinson was a rookie in the International League, playing for the Brooklyn Dodger's Montreal Royals farm club. The previous year, 1945, Robinson had met with Branch Rickey, then the Dodgers' general manager, who had told him of his intention to vault a black man across major league baseball's color bar and into a Brooklyn Dodger uniform and of his selection of Robinson as the man to do it. In that meeting, Rickey had also told Robinson that baseballs would be the least lethal things thrown at him if he decided to take the chance Rickey was offering, and then, to be sure Robinson understood what he meant. Rickey uncorked a demi-tasse of the bigot's verbal vinegar and threw it in Robinson's face.
"He knew every taunt, dig, threat and underhand device of the bigots." Robinson once said of Rickey. "He shouted their damnable curses at me, then pulled up sharply. 'Can you take it?"' Rickey asked him. "'Can you take it without fighting back?"'
"I didn't think I could," Robinson remembered. "I didn't see why I should."
But, he told Rickey he would, and for three years, he did. Sublimating all of the anger the taunts and threats and accumulating indignities fired within him into his performance on the field, Jackie Robinson walked quietly but carried a very big stick.
That first year in Montreal, when he became the first black to play in the white leagues in more than fifty years. Robinson led his league in batting, fielding, and runs scored. The following year, brought up to Brooklyn, he led the Dodgers to the National League pennant, despite the fact that many of his teammates had been so opposed to the idea of playing with a black that at the beginning of the season they had jointly petitioned Rickey to trade them if he was going to play Robinson. However, by the end of the season, the attitude of these players towards Robinson had changed substantially. As one of them, Bobby Bragan, recalls: "Sure, there were five or six of us who resented Robinson's joining the team. But, by that fall, when the Series checks were being passed out, Dixie Walker and Ed Head and all of us who were there, we had our hands out just as big as the next one--and Jackie Robinson had had the biggest hand of all in getting us into the World Series."
But, Jackie Robinson was changing, too. After another year of spectacular performances for the Dodgers. Robinson met again with Branch Rickey, and this time, Rickey told him: "You've earned the right to be yourself, Jackie. You've given so much to the game that you are now in a position to comport yourself as others players do. You're on your own now."
"From that moment on," Jackie Robinson said, "I defended myself against anti-Negro insults with all the force at my command." His stick grew no smaller, but his footsteps rang loud and proud. He took no grief and did not hesitate to let the world know what he thought was wrong with it.
But, just as in recent years there have been those who've felt he did not say enough or shuffled when he should have pranced proud, there were those then, in the intense hush of the early Fifties, who felt that Robinson had taken to talking too much and wearing a brittle pride like an albatross across his shoulders.
One of those who felt that Robinson had taken a turn for the worse was the umpire who had known him in the International League and who took a plane flight with him in 1954. Sitting beside Robinson on the flight, he asked: "What's made you change your attitude, Jackie? I liked you much better when you were less aggressive."
"I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me," Robinson replied. "All I ask is that you respect me as a human being. I am not ashamed of my dark skin. You and every other white American should understand that we believe our color is an asset. Your dislike of my aggressiveness has no effect on me. I'm after something much more important than your favor or disfavor. You should at least admit that you respect me as a man who stands up for what he believes in. I am not an Uncle Tom. I am in this fight to stay."
And, he stayed in it until the end. The measure of a famous man worthy of praise Let us now praise famous men.
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