In Honor of MLK, Obama and Jackie Robinson

Writer proposes switching baseball allegiances ... but just for a week

No matter which baseball team you root for, this week -- for one week only -- you might want to consider switching your allegiance.

I realize in many households this is considered heresy. But we’re just talking one week here. This week, everyone should be a Dodger fan.

This week, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the inauguration of  Barack Obama. In a small but significant way, the Dodgers helped pave the way for both these events.

In 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed a speedy young second baseman from Pasadena named Jackie Robinson. Rickey had done a major background check on Robinson, who was playing for UCLA. Rickey wanted to make sure Robinson had the inner strength to withstand what was coming. Robinson was to be the first player to break the color barrier in baseball.

To be sure, Rickey’s motivation was mostly about business. Robinson could hit, field, and boy could he run the bases. But Rickey also was mindful that Robinson’s presence on the roster could trigger a boycott by fans. He figured, however, that fans in Brooklyn, America’s ultimate melting pot, would accept Robinson more readily than fans in other cities. He was right.

On his way to being named Rookie of the Year, Robinson endured horrific humiliation and discrimination when the team went on the road. His teammate, Don Newcombe, who still works for the Dodgers in their PR department giving speeches, tells stories of black Dodgers having to stay in separate hotels from the rest of the team. Often their hotels were flophouses with no air conditioning. In St. Louis, they were eventually allowed to stay in the same hotel as the white players, but were told they could not swim in the pool.

Hall of Famer Vin Scully, the legendary Dodger broadcaster, tells the story of one road trip to Cincinnati in the early 1950s. Police and FBI agents had uncovered a credible threat against Robinson’s life -- they got a tip that an assassin would try to shoot him at the game. Sharpshooters were posted on the roof of the grandstand and on the roof of the post office across the street from the stadium. Undercover cops mingled in the stands with fans.

The tension in the locker room was palpable. There was discussion among some Dodgers players about boycotting the game, but Robinson wouldn’t hear any of it. That would be giving in, he said, and anyone who knows anything about Jackie Robinson knows that wasn’t in his make up. Just then, one Dodger player, not the brightest of the bunch, made a suggestion. "Maybe we should all wear number 42 on our uniforms. It’ll confuse the killer." The idea was quickly dismissed.

The funny thing is that nowadays, every April 15, every Dodger player wears Robinson’s number 42 in tribute. Sixty years later, that dim-witted but well-meaning player’s wish came true.

Rickey’s vision, Robinson’s courage and his teammates’ support should be remembered this week.

To this day, the Dodgers are at the forefront of diversity. They were the first team to open a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Ten years ago the team’s starting rotation consisted of pitchers from Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, Canada and Korea -- another first. It makes you wonder what the catcher is saying when he walks to the mound to give a pep talk to the pitcher, who doesn’t understand a word of English.

So for one week only, let’s all be Dodger fans.

Michael Horowicz is a longtime Dodgers season ticket holder.

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