I flipped on the TV recently and picked up Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers in the process of vanquishing San Diego's Padres. All of the Dodgers were wearing No. 42, as did many major league ballplayers that Sunday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's crossing the colour line to integrate major league baseball. The Dodgers won easily, No. 42 had a career night at the plate and on the mound, and commentators gushed about Robinson's path-blazing significance.
Now retired, I recall my life as a young baseball fan who came to love the game during Robinson's heyday in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I rooted for the Dodgers until Bobby Thomson hit his "shot heard 'round the world" in 1951 to win a playoff for the cross-town New York Giants. Then, when the Boston Braves moved to Milwaukee in the early 1950s, I fell in love with Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. Later, in 1957, when the Giants came west to San Francisco, I rooted for Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. Today, with all the player comings and goings, I find myself cheering primarily for laundry.
Major League Baseball retired Robinson's No. 42 10 years ago, and horsehide savants agree that with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali, he did more for African-Americans in sport than any other athlete. Indeed, without Robinson, most argue, there could never have been an Ali or a Malcolm X.
Emotions sparked by the 60th anniversary of Robinson's achievement revived thoughts of a student-athlete in my United States Social/Cultural undergrad history seminar in 1987 - 40 years after Robinson ruptured the colour line. That student, Sheridon Baptiste, was arguably the best athlete at Queen's during my 37-year tenure on faculty. Of West Indian descent and a graduate of Laurentian High School in Ottawa, he was one of the few blacks who attended Queen's during my career, and from the beginning I could tell he was someone special.
As an undergraduate, he was nationally ranked in track and field, starred on the basketball team (making the State University of New York at Potsdam all-tournament team as a freshman in 1985), and, as a defensive back for Doug Hargreaves' football squad, caught the eye of Canadian Football League scouts. After graduation, Baptiste used his strength and speed as a member of the Canadian national luge team to earn a rank among the top brakemen in the world in both the two- and four-man events. More recently, he has owned and managed fitness centres in Ottawa while keeping in contact with his alma mater.
Like most Queen's athletes, Baptiste also scored well in the classroom, giving the term "student-athlete" its proper emphasis.
A sociology major and an African-Canadian within a sea of white faces, he was quiet in the seminar, but when he spoke, he did so with quiet conviction.
Hence Baptiste's essay analysing Robinson's arrival in the major leagues had more than intrinsic interest. Baptiste's personal athletic experience no doubt influenced his choice of topic and in turn helped him bridge the gap between the historic cultural and social contexts of Robinson's achievement and his own intellectual and athletic present. This is what social science and history - mediated by personal experience - should enable our students to do. Baptiste's paper, which I retain in my archives, stressed the impact that racism exerted upon baseball before and after Robinson's arrival. That racism was institutionalized in 1884 with an unwritten rule of exclusion that extended to the baseball diamond. "Jim Crow" laws enshrining "separate but equal" in all areas of interchange involving blacks and whites underlay the creation of separate Negro baseball leagues. Baptiste located that once-lost chapter in sport history as part of the larger story of black poverty, discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Baptiste caught the irony in the euphemism, as well as the caste system it formalized. That apartheid ended legally in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned segregation in the classic case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Organized baseball thus led politics in the march toward integration and civil rights. Through the agency of Dodgers' owner Branch Rickey, Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947. As he did, he gave the nation and world a lesson in non-violent resistance that impressed, among others, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. For if white Americans had cheered Jesse Owens and Joe Louis as individual heroes in track and boxing respectively in the 1930s - both black athletes confronting the growing Nazi racist behemoth - the idea of black and white players appearing together on an American baseball field remained anathema.
Rickey understood this as he comprehended the inequity of denying entry to baseball to Americans who possessed the necessary abilities to succeed. He also saw the potential market if blacks came into the major leagues. Most important, though, he understood Robinson as a young, skilled athlete who was coachable. The key for Rickey was to teach Robinson, a fierce competitor on every field he occupied, the art of turning the other cheek to the hostility that was sure to come.
Baptiste wrote that Robinson had learned to ignore the racial barbs he encountered as an athlete at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he excelled at football, basketball, track, swimming and tennis. But the hostility that Robinson encountered in college was nothing compared to the abuse he encountered from fans, opponents and even some of his teammates when he joined the Dodgers. Baseball was in many respects a Southern game with all its attitudes toward race inherited from a past of slavery and segregation long in clear view.
Jackie Robinson's story is now legend. His story recently dominated TV and the sports pages, as it had 20 years ago when Baptiste wrote his term essay. At that time, the Queen's student noted that hundreds of black athletes - in all sports - owed their livelihoods to Robinson. He also pointed out that the racism Robinson encountered lived on not just in the South but throughout the U.S., and in Canada too. The road to equality, he concluded, remained long and winding, and a subsequent bizarre event underlined his point.
The week Baptiste handed in his essay, Dodgers vice-president Al Campanis appeared on ABC-TV's Nightline show and told host Ted Koppel that African-Americans had not made it to boardrooms and other upper-echelon managerial positions in sport because they lacked "certain necessities." Ignoring Robinson's swimming feats, he offered the dearth of blacks in swimming as proof of their lack of buoyancy. Campanis, in fact, appeared to say that if blacks couldn't swim, they couldn't be general managers in baseball. The illogical comparison, of course, confused the lack of black swimmers with the lack of swimming pools available to them.
Twice Koppel asked, "Do you really believe that?" Campanis, unfortunately, did not change his response. It was clear in the aftermath, in the words of Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray, that Campanis had "one of the worst at-bats in baseball history."
A half-year later, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, then a National Football League analyst for CBS-TV, offered a genetic explanation of black superiority in football and basketball. "Before the Civil War," Snyder stated, "the slaveowner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he would have a big black kid. That's where it all started." Extolling African-American athletic achievement, Snyder then turned to the "Sambo stereotype" usually applied to blacks to explain the shortcomings of white athletes. Now, Snyder intoned, it is the white athletes "who are lazy. There are 10 players on a basketball court. If you find two whites, you're lucky. Four out of five, or nine out of 10, are black. Now that's because they practise and play, and practise and play. They're not lazy like the white athlete is."
Finally, Snyder put his foot even further down his throat, saying that if blacks were "to take over coaching like everybody wants them to, there won't be anything left for white people. I mean, all the players are black. The only things the whites control are the coaching jobs. Now I'm not being derogatory about it, but that's all that's left for them."
Both Campanis and Snyder lost their jobs because of their comments. Neither man could be considered a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a follower of Ernst Zundel or Jim Keegstra, but neither pundit took the time to consider the possibility that distinctions within races are equally important as, or more important than, differences between races. Nor did they contemplate the growing body of research that suggested how complex interactions between genetic, environmental and cultural influences play out in "racial" performance.
Twenty years after Sheridon Baptiste graduated from Queen's, I asked my last sport sociology class if "race" still mattered. For most of the students, race did not seem a divisive source of conflict, as it had seemed in earlier decades. But for my students of colour - three out of 40 - race mattered plenty. In their view, stereotypes and misunderstandings still abounded. Sure, there were black quarterbacks in the National Football League, black coaches in the National Basketball Association and black sportscasters everywhere, but as for the boardrooms and front offices - the real sites of power - those minority students pointed out that many miles remain to complete the journey.
Radio shock-jock Don Imus's recent offhand comment about the "nappy-headed hos" of Rutgers University's women's basketball team merely adds another chapter to the long, sad tome that Jackie Robinson challenged and that Sheridon Baptiste revisited. Imus, like Campanis and Snyder, took the fall - he was fired - but few observers had occasion to hold a mirror to their faces. Americans and Canadians both need to reconsider how they enable people such as as Campanis, Snyder and Imus to say what they say.
Far fewer African-Americans now aspire to Major League Baseball careers compared to the numbers in the 30 years following Robinson's debut. We should ponder that point, too, and think about the ways in which our society perpetuates inequality. Imus's comments were no different than those directed at Robinson as he took the field 60 years ago.
Geoff Smith taught sport sociology and history at Queen's University for 37 years. This article first appeared in the Kingston Whig-Standard May 2, 2007