This week, the film 42—the number that appeared on Jackie Robinson's uniform when he entered the Major Leagues 66 years ago—will be released to mark the opening of the 2013 baseball season.
I was a pre-teen in 1947, the year the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Robinson up from their farm team in Montreal. My only awareness was that a new, potentially great player was going to join our "Beloved Bums" to help us beat our main pennant rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, which, in turn, would earn us the chance to finally beat—no, not just beat: humble! humiliate! destroy!—those damn Yankees at long last.
If there were editorials in the sports pages about the "Negro situation," I didn't know of them—my nose was forever buried into the box scores and stats. Record books on the order of the Louisville Slugger Yearbook, a freebie I sent away for each year from the famed baseball bat manufacturer, showed us "how to play shortstop like Lou Boudreau" but made no mention of race restrictions in our national pastime.
Those were the days before Little League, and we played ball in the various empty lots scattered throughout our Brooklyn neighborhood. I may not have batted high in the order of our 17th Avenue Cyclones, but no one else on the team knew Ty Cobb's lifetime batting average or had ever heard of Napoleon Lajoie or Zack Wheat, the first "big name" Brooklyn Dodger All-Star!
The only hate I was aware of was the hate we all shared for the New York Yankees. But, if someone like Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals came to Ebbets Field and killed us, it was more of a love-hate. Stan "The Man" was so good I was forced to rationalize, "Well, if someone had to hit the winning RBI, I'm glad it was him and not some other Cardinal creep!" It was safer to idolize heroes in the other, American League, like Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox, because they were dedicated to beating in the brains of the Yankees.
At the time, I regarded Hank Greenberg's 58 homers as an impressive statistic, tantalizingly close to the great Babe Ruth's 60. But I never heard, until years later, about how "they wouldn't give the Jew a decent pitch to swing at" in those last games of the season to keep him from breaking the Babe's record.
I remember clearly the first game I attended in the 1947 season and how disappointed I was that all the buttons said "Jackie." What about my hero, Pee Wee Reese? I was too young and naïve to realize the true significance of a black man finally participating in a previously all-white baseball world. After all, many of my boxing heroes were black (as were college football stars and entertainers), and I didn't know one kid who'd rooted for Billy Conn in his rematch against Joe Louis for the heavyweight title.
"Why only Jackie buttons?" I asked. "I want a Pee Wee Reese button!"
The black vendor smiled down at me and said, "That's because Jackie's a Negro, son. The first." What difference did that make? I loved Pee Wee and I wanted a button to prove it. The only feeling I experienced that moment was disappointment as I purchased my Jackie button. How I wish I still had it today.
Of course, I soon became an ardent Jackie fan too, but mostly for his baseball ability. As always, there are stats to prove it. Robinson won the National League batting championship in 1949 with a .342 average, and I was ecstatic that a Dodger achieved that distinction—any Dodger. The handicap of emotional pressures on Robinson's shoulders was surely worth another 50 points, but it wasn't until later, when I was an adult working for civil rights, that all Jackie Robinson had accomplished finally came into true focus. Those achievements are excluded from the stats, along with the "bad pitches" thrown to Greenberg and the hate letters delivered to Hank Aaron as his quest for 715 career home runs (to surpass Ruth's record of 714) neared its glorious finale.
The years have made my love for Jackie Robinson complete. I love him for all the wrong reasons, and all the right ones.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Safe at home."