Let’s honor Jackie Robinson’s wishes on the 40th anniversary of his death

This week marks 40 years since Jackie Robinson’s death at age 53, and it’s a time to honor his commitment to equality of opportunity.

Many paused this past April 15th on Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day to commemorate what Robinson accomplished as baseball’s integration pioneer. Fewer will pause to contemplate Robinson’s last words spoken at the 1972 World Series.

“I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball,” he said.

Those words, spoken less than 10 days before his death on Oct. 24, 1972, would represent Jackie Robinson’s constant agitating for Major League Baseball to enact a version of integration that was transformative and enduring, one that extended beyond the playing field to the front offices of teams and even the league office.

Although at that time black players filled about a quarter of major league rosters, Robinson was distressed at the limited scope of integration. There had yet to be a black manager in the major leagues, much less a black general manager or owner.

Baseball had nixed Robinson’s own aspirations to be a manager at the end of his playing days — much like those of Monte Irvin, Larry Doby, and possibly other pioneering blacks.

Opportunity: That was what Robinson had constantly agitated for as an integration pioneer and as part of the civil rights movement. His was a persistent voice, pressing for not just inclusion but for equality of opportunity.

To honor Jackie’s last words and vision, Major League Baseball ought to do more on Jackie Robinson Day than just have each ballplayer don his now-retired number 42.

Sure, the league has increased its support of its RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), and in 2000 its 30 franchises pledged $1.2 million to the Robinson Foundation (donated over a four-year period) to fund 120 $10,000 scholarships.

But an ad hoc approach to keeping alive the legacy of Robinson is not enough.

Major League Baseball must invest in Robinson’s vision to inspire African-American youth to play the game as well as pursue educational opportunities.

If we are all Jackie Robinson, a claim that Commissioner Bud Selig and others made in granting permission for each active player to don Robinson’s 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, then each major league franchise should donate $42,000 to the inner cities baseball program every Jackie Robinson Day.

Similarly, the commissioner’s office and Major League Baseball Players Association can combine to donate $4.20 for each fan that comes through the turnstiles that day.

In this way, Major League Baseball can create a permanent means of investing in and honoring Jackie Robinson’s legacy and thereby continue the work that Robinson began on and beyond the playing field.

Adrian Burgos Jr. is professor and director of graduate studies in the department of history at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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