REPRINTED FROM APRIL 15, 2012
April 15th. Quite an important date in American history.
Yes yes yes, I know, it’s tax day. But that’s not it.
As I write this, on April 15th, 2012, it is 100 years to the day since the Titanic sank in the North Atlantic. One hundred years ago exactly. Pretty cool, huh? But that’s not it either.
No, for Americans, April 15th involves two of the most important and transcendent figures in this country’s rich (yet not always flattering) history. The first of these two transcendent types, Abraham Lincoln, died exactly 147 years ago today, on April 15th, 1865. Single shot to the head. Instant martyrdom.
Lincoln, of course, is both the most famous and most important figure in American history for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, naturally, is he’s the guy who freed the slaves. Good for him. But what most Americans don’t know is that Lincoln didn’t free all the slaves. Just the ones in states and territories then currently “in rebellion” against the United States, not the slaves in the so-called “border” states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware. Ever the politician, Lincoln didn’t want to alienate slave-owners in those states whose loyalty to the Union and whose votes in upcoming elections might be necessary, in order for him to continue to prosecute the Civil War and keep the Union intact. And he also wanted to guarantee that any key European countries like France or Spain or England could not, in good conscience, ever support the Confederacy. So what he did in the Emancipation Proclamation (clever bearded chap that he was) was free all the slaves in the rebellious Confederate states, but none in the not-so-rebellious border states! At least not right away. (And if you want to get technical about it, this Emancipation Proclamation of January 1st, 1863 didn’t actually free anybody. Not until 1865, anyway. Because the North had to actually beat the South, obviously, for the document to have any actual long-term effect.)
The other thing that a lot of people don’t know about our 16th president is that he wasn’t a fervent Abolitionist. He was always against slavery, but he wasn’t always a vocal fanatic about it. Far from it. He once famously remarked that if he could save the Union by freeing all the slaves he would do it, or by freeing none of the slaves he would do it, or by freeing some of the slaves while leaving others in bondage he would also do that. The latter option, as mentioned, being exactly what he did.
What made Abraham Lincoln exceptional is that he actually evolved, late in life, as a human being. While he originally saw the Civil War as a war fought solely for the preserving of the Union, he eventually came to also see it as a war to set men free. He grew, he evolved. And he stuck to his guns. A man of clear vision and iron will. That’s why he’s great.
The other powerful and transcendent figure of American history attached to April 15th is one Jack Roosevelt Robinson. A local boy, Jack. I’m proud to say we went to the same high school, albeit 35 years apart; John Muir High in Pasadena….but in the interest of full disclosure, so did Rodney King and Sirhan. Oh, well.
Anyway, it was 65 years ago today, April 15th, 1947, that Jackie Robinson “broke the color line”, and played his first game of baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At which point he became the first black ballplayer to play in a major league game in the 20th century.
But not the first black ballplayer to ever play major league baseball.
That’s what most casual baseball fans and casual observers of American history don’t know about Jackie Robinson. They all think he was the first black ballplayer to ever play in the majors. He wasn’t! There were several black players in the major leagues in the 19th century, most notably the legendary Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played his last major league game for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (then a major league) way back in 1884.
That was the last major league baseball game any black player played in for 63 years. White players, especially the game’s best player of that era, Adrian “Cap” Anson, started to refuse to take the field if black players like Walker were scheduled to play. In fact Anson, quite the wordsmith, took delight in referring to Moses Walker and his brother and Toledo teammate Welday Walker as, and I quote, “chocolate-covered coons”. Egad.
Sadly, Anson’s point of view was the popular one. By the late 1880s an unofficial (yet completely iron-clad) “color line” had been drawn in both the National League and the American Association, effectively banning blacks from playing in the majors. So Robinson wasn’t the first black player in the majors ever, rather just the first in a very long time….
But I believe this makes what Robinson did, and endured, even more special. If he were simply and solely the first black major league player ever, one could make the case that America has always been a country slow to embrace change, even, especially, positive change, and that Robinson was merely the symbol of the glacier-like evolution of a slowly evolving species. But the fact that we actually had black ballplayers at one time, and then systematically eliminated them from the game, and then jealously and rigidly held that anti-black “gentleman’s agreement “ in place, speaks volumes about the ingrained, often-virulent, deep-seated hold racism has, still has, on American society. Accordingly, Robinson suffered greatly by being the one to break the color line. The open contempt, the racial slurs, hate mail, spiking by other players, name-calling, segregated lodging, death threats, my god….it is unimaginable to properly reflect upon what he must have endured. There must have been many times when he thought he simply could not continue to take the field.
No wonder that today, all across the Major Leagues, every single ballplayer who took the field wore Robinson’s number 42. Every one.
In closing, I myself would like to humbly add my column to the day’s many tributes to Mr. Robinson. Baseball is our National Pastime. That makes Robinson one of the most important figures in American history. I sometimes have to remind myself of this. For I was born in 1955, eight years after Robinson integrated, or should I say re-integrated, the game. My favorite player growing up was Willie Mays, my brother’s was Hank Aaron, my other brother’s was Maury Wills. Black men all. To us, the color-blind Eastland boys, it was all perfectly natural. But who knows….had we been born a decade or two earlier, it might not have been. We have Jackie to thank. I cannot imagine baseball without men of color. But there was a long time—six embarrassing decades—when many Americans, including the owners and executives who ran the game, could not imagine baseball with men of color. As I say, we are a slowly evolving species.
So thanks, Jack. If Lincoln was justly nicknamed “The Great Emancipator” for our nation as a whole, you were certainly the great emancipator of baseball. But not just for your fellow blacks. For whites like myself, you allowed us to escape for good from our ingrained prejudices, and to embrace—as Lincoln himself put it—the better angels of our nature….
meet….The Sports Philosopher!
Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered literary savant, and a lifelong worshipper of the church of baseball. Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports Section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’. His columns on very old and very underappreciated movies can be found by clicking Arts & Entertainment, then clicking ’Upon Further Review’. Brad has also written 4 fine novels* and over 20 short-stories.
*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, of triumph, and of utter despair, entitled WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for that title on amazon.com, iUniverse.com, or bn.com. And then order it. And then READ it. And then tell everyone about it. And then read it again. He thanks you.