Jackie Robinson (1919 – 1972) - 18 April 1997

A journalist only very rarely given to a sentimental sentence wrote one day this past week, "A man who lived a career so compelling, it's retelling has once again riveted a nation". Who could that possibly be?

Without further teasing ado, I'd better say at once that he was a man named Robinson. He was black. And 50 years ago last Tuesday, he trotted out on to a baseball field in Brooklyn and played ball for the famous Dodgers. The first black man ever to break the never-questioned tradition that the national summer game was a game for white men only.

Jacky Robinson is long gone, 25 years. He died at 53. And it's hard now to try and get inside the skin and the senses of this 28-year-old and guess what he felt like, going out into the chill spring sunshine before a crowd, a 20-some thousand – rather small crowd for a major league game – that had never seen such a sight before?

A black man, wearing the Dodgers' uniform. The team name inscribed across his chest, just like his teammates. It's perhaps as well we don't try and guess at the mixed emotions of the crowd. There was no booing. But there were old fans who, once the game was over, swore they'd never watch the Dodgers again.

And before the game started, four of those teammates made it clear to the manager that they were, to put it politely, dismayed at being on a team with a Negro, as he was universally called in those days. One player asked to be traded as soon as possible to another team.

We've learned all this later. There was no fuss made at the time, just a great unease among the players, and an awkward curiosity, you might say, among the crowd. Robinson's first performance was three times at bat for nothing. And he called it later, "miserable". But neither the manager thought so, nor the black fans. For once, perhaps once for all, half the crowd was black. Because he did score the run that put the Dodgers ahead and made them winners.

Well, last Tuesday night, in a coliseum of blazing light, it might have been President Mandela or the pope who was being fêted by a crowd of over 50,000, of whom only a few old codgers could have known the man who broke the baseball colour bar and fewer still to recall the lacklustre occasion that was being celebrated by the biggest shots a national political event would be likely to call for – the President of the United States, the governor of the state of New York, the mayor of New York City, neither of whom, however they felt, would have dared to be absent considering that re-election campaigns are just over the horizon.

Jacky Robinson's widow was, of course, the guest of honour. An elegant lady who has devoted most of her life since her husband's going to a charitable foundation she set up in his name, the year after he died.

At the end of the fifth inning of the nine on Tuesday, the game was interrupted for half an hour, for a celebration of honour in which the president, Mrs. Robinson, one or two wiry old teammates spoke about him into the echoing thunder of a microphone.

The president said, "It's hard to believe that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America for ever. Jacky Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day and we've all been trying to catch up ever since. We've done a lot of good in the past 50 years but we could do a lot better".

This may bring up, to a sceptical listener, to any of us now, the question of Robinson's talent, if any. Was he being remembered with such splendid clamour just because he was the first black man who dared walk out and play the white man's game? Well, mainly, yes. Because of the gesture itself and because of what went on afterwards, off the field, for a year or two. But within one year, he was voted by the writers and the league managers the most valuable player of the year. He demonstrated amply, throughout the rest of his career that – white, black, brown, or whatever – as a talent, he belonged up there with the big boys. Indeed, he was one of the big boys.

After Tuesday's admirable hoopla and the televising of much of it around the country, it was recalled by other black men, by old hotel men, his friends, restaurant owners and the like, what a tough time he had for several years. Being accepted, or rather being routinely rejected, as a social equal on the road. The Dodgers' manager had to make tactful arrangements ahead of time to find black hotels that would take him in the towns the Dodgers played. The racial slurs took years to end, not only from the jeering scum on the edge of the crowds, but from the players on the opposing teams. This all sounds barbarous today to a generation that has grown up in an America of restaurant, theatres, ballparks, offices, every sort of public convenience, mixed.

But Jacky Robinson came out, most whites I believe thought brazenly, out of the closet, so to speak, in 1947, seven years before the Supreme Court's landmark ruling which overturned the old provision for separate, but equal, schools (they were never equal) and opened the floodgates to whatever sins we've called a multicultural society.

"Open the floodgates" is not a very good image. It rather "cracked the dam" of racial separation to allow a dribble of integration for many years. For a stubborn, long time, the South especially, resisted the Supreme Court's ruling by passing state laws maintaining segregation. It took years to overthrow them.

In all this, someone may rightly ask, how could a poor black boy, a small, professional baseball player playing in the Negro league – separate leagues for black baseball players existed until quite lately – how could a black poor boy, on his own initiative, decide to break into the major leagues and make it?

A question that makes me wish another name had been bandied about with a little more pride the other evening. It is the name of the Dodgers' owner of 50 years ago, one Branch Rickey, who had the gumption and, I guess, the daring to send a scout out into the minor leagues and the black league and see if there might be anyone of outstanding talent.

He heard that Jacky Robinson was such a man and decided – in what is the true historic moment – that he would recruit him into the Dodgers team and send him out to play ball alongside hundreds of white men and in front of thousands of American fans all over the country who had never seen such a thing before. Branch Rickey.

No one has asked me, but some of you younger people especially, to whom America today is the only America they know, may wonder what I and the English visitors, for that matter the residents felt about what has become, called, the race question back in those days and before.

How about me? I think of myself as humane, un-bigotted, from an early age trying always abroad not to behave like a little Englander. I slid very smoothly into first a university society, then the town society. I mean the mingling with the people, the bus drivers, grocers, office workers, students, professors, and was nice and friendly in a careful way to the black lady who did the laundry, the black maids in people's houses, the black men who shined shoes, drove trucks were at the head of their profession as servers of glorious breakfasts on the morning trains to anywhere.

When I arrived here, any European who took a particular interest in the South was almost certain to be an early jazz fan. Trad, they now call it. Except as a subservient class doing the humbler chores of the republic, the Negro was known as an entertainer, and ardently listened to, for the music that was peculiarly his – the 12-bar blues and the music that grew out of it.

The rousing things that Franklin Roosevelt was doing to American society in first glorious rush of his New Dal, we're talking about the winter of 1932, the pit of the Great Depression, was obvious, even to a young foreigner who had, till then, taken the barest interest in politics.

Pity, or anxiety, for the shuffling lines of men of all classes that you saw making up the breadlines was soon taken care of by all sorts of laws and projects that Roosevelt inaugurated. He took 15 million youngsters off the streets and started a national programme called the Civilian Conservation Core, the CCC. They built bridges, repaired falling churches and post offices, planted 10 million trees.

Government subsidies went pouring out to the impoverished farmers. The works project agency took care of idle hands of any colour. For any comfortable and sensitive onlooker who might let the 13 million unemployed prey on his mind, Roosevelt had conveniently shouldered the burden of the poor.

And how about the New Deal and the black man? Nothing special. Franklin Roosevelt was an uncommonly far-seeing and compassionate leader but I doubt he ever lost a moment's sleep thinking about the "White" signs and the "Coloured only" signs in railroad waiting rooms, public toilets, the galleries for Negroes only in theatres. The wholly white world of baseball, football, eating, golf.

To think of Roosevelt, or if you'll excuse the expression, of me, as crassly insensitive and prejudiced is to make the same mistake as calling Thomas Jefferson a hypocrite because he proclaimed to the death his concern for human liberty and yet kept slaves. It's the cruel mistake of judging a man outside his time.

The little committee of founding fathers that wrote the noble sentence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". Of course they meant, without a second thought, that all white men are created equal.

It's not the least of the immense burdens the white society of America has taken on itself and wrestles with every hour to make that sentence mean "all men and all women".

THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING OF THE ORIGINAL BBC BROADCAST (© BBC) AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC. Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.

Added. Check out your playlist Dismiss