It is generally agreed that Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black major league baseball player, playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. Until Jackie Robinson, Walker was also the last black player in the major leagues thanks to a “gentleman’s agreement” to not sign black players inspired by Hall of Famer Cap Anson. Anson refused to take the field against Walker.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his first major league game. He manned first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Jackie’s courageous efforts on and off the field paved the way for the civil rights movement.
He preceded Rosa Parks by eight years. (He even had his own bus seat incident while serving in the Army.)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
Even President Obama said, “I believe there is a straight line from what Jackie did to me being elected the first African American president.”*
His number 42 was retired across MLB just a few months after I got married. Starting in 2009, all MLB players wear it in a tribute to him on Jackie Robinson Day. (Except for the Daytona Tortugas. They wear #9, because that’s the number he wore when he played in Daytona. The Tortugas field is now known as “The Jack.”) Teams auction off their #42 uniforms with proceeds benefiting a wide variety of charities. For years, I’ve wanted my own Royals #42 jersey, but each year the bidding far exceeds my budget. I’m not sure what will happen to this year’s Royals #42 jerseys — the ridiculous weather cancelled yet another game in KC.
As a fan of all things Kansas City, I love that Jackie was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs when Branch Rickey contacted him. He was an All-Star shortstop in the Negro Leagues. I also love, thanks to the diligent research of Curt Nelson, that Jackie played for the Kansas City Royals.**
According to Curt, “The California Winter League was one of the first integrated leagues featuring teams from both the Major Leagues and Negro Leagues. Though the league was integrated, the teams were not, and one of the clubs made of Negro League players was managed by Chet Brewer, a former Kansas City Monarch and native of Leavenworth, Kansas. He could not call his team the Monarchs so instead went with the name Kansas City Royals.
“And that is where Robinson comes into the picture. After he left the Monarchs in 1945, and before he reported to the Montreal Royals in 1946, he went to Southern California and played for Brewer’s Kansas City Royals.”
Ryan (Day #100) introduced me to Lester who teaches with Matt (Day #35). I am constantly amazed by the small-world connections through this project.
It snowed on the day I played catch with Matt in early February. It also snowed on April 15. Sunday is still for doubleheaders. Before church, with flurries steadily falling, Harper and I braved the cold and froze our fingers. His first game was supposed to be last Friday but was cancelled due to storms. Hopefully, he’ll take the field this week.
Thankfully, Ryan created space for Lester and me to play catch inside CY Sports this afternoon.
Lester is an umpire whose big dream for 2018 includes calling a district championship game. He’s also a Royals fan. (I so love meeting Royals fans in Springfield!) Lester grew up in KC, going to school with Frank White’s children. When he came to Springfield to play football and run track at MSU, he was given the #20, a neat coincidence as White wore the same number.
The very first story I was ever paid to publish was a story about playing catch with Frank White. I wear a replica powder blue jersey with his name and number on the back when I really want to dress up.
Baseball players are taught from a young age the concept of team, to play for the name on the front of the jersey, not the name and number on the back.
“But for one day, all of baseball recognizes the importance of what Jackie did. For one day, that #42 reminds us that everyone can play even if we’re different. In between those lines, we’re just playing ball.”
I am convinced the games on Jackie Robinson Day are the most important game each season.
“Jackie’s legacy still teaches us today that we can tolerate people at their worst, whether or not we like them. Some of his teammates didn’t want to play with him merely based on perception, they didn’t know him at all. What he did on the field opened the doors for conversations — for hard, important conversations — and that leads to relationship, where you really get to know people. Those relationships create real change.”
Lester has experienced racism, even here in Springfield.
“I was just playing with my kids at the park when someone drove by and shouted the ‘N’ word at us. I don’t go around looking for it, but it’s there. There’s a fine line between racism and ignorance, and education and relationships are the way forward.”
I remember well the time I was pulled over by an officer and yelled at for being bald. “What’s wrong with this world are skinheads like you,” he berated as he wrote me my first ticket. The officer was ignorant. He didn’t know that I lost all my hair at 6, that being bald was beyond my control. Even so, I was on the defensive any time I was near an officer for years.
It seems that 130 years after Walker played and 71 years after Jackie’s first game, we still struggle with the same issues — treating others the way we would like to be treated.
I used my old Wilson glove today knowing that it’s from the same era that Jackie played. Lester and I practiced a variety of pitches. His actually had movement; mine were string straight. Or horribly wild.
As an umpire, Lester’s yet to work with a catcher who wears perfume like Salvador Perez. He did tell me several umpiring stories and gave me several pointers about making good calls. His hit-by-foul-ball stories, however, only served to confirm that I will never, ever be an umpire.
I’m hoping Lester gets his chance to call a district championship game this year. I’d like to go to one game and cheer for the ump.
“He led America by example. He reminded our people of what was right and he reminded them of what was wrong. I think it can be safely said today that Jackie Robinson made the United States a better nation.” – American League President Gene Budig
*Henry, Ed. 42 Faith: The Rest of the Jackie Robinson Story. W Publishing Group; Nashville, TN. 2017.