Monday, July 28, 2008

Jackie Robinson

I had a few thoughts inspired by what is likely to be my last visit to Shea Stadium. I went with my wife and daughter on Sunday to see the Mets beat the Cardinals, 9-1. The victory ran my daughter's lifetime record at Shea to 5-0.

Rising next to the stadium is the Mets' new park, Citi Field, a mostly brick edifice meant to replicate Ebbets Field, the former home of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Inside the new park is a space that will be called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It will celebrate the life and career of the man who broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

I allude to Robinson's impending arrival with the Dodgers several times in "Blood Alley," which is set in the winter of 1946-47. The book's protagonist, Patrick Grimes, has the "enlightened" attitude that Robinson should play in the majors if he has the ability. Seems like an uncontroversial opinion now, but back then it was radical. The misty eye of nostalgia makes it seem as if only a few die-hard reactionaries and bigots were opposed to Robinson's playing in the majors. In fact, just about the entire baseball establishment was against it, as were more than 80 percent of the fans. In "Blood Alley," several of the more unsympathetic characters take potshots at Robinson and the "radical" idea of integrating the majors. To modern eyes, those ideas seem malevolent, if not borderline insane. For that time, they were mainstream opinion.

In the end, the benefits all accrued to the Dodgers. Branch Rickey, the team's general manager, is regarded as a civil rights pioneer. (He was, but he was incredibly cheap toward his players. In fairness, so were all the other baseball executives of that era.)

Perhaps more important, by doing right, the Dodgers did well. The pipeline they established with African-American players enabled them to dominate the National League from the late 1940s into the mid 1960s.

And I'm looking forward to entering the Mets' new park through Jackie Robinson Rotunda, and talking to my daughter about him.

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