Jackie Robinson swings wide legacy
On a recent, sun-draped afternoon following classes, the players on the Ferndale Middle School baseball team warmed up at the start of practice behind their school.
The 20 or so players, an equivalent mix of black and white youngsters, stretched and ran sprints on brown grass trying to emerge from winter hibernation. Nothing was extraordinary about the moment, unless you consider that three generations ago it seemed unthinkable.
The interracial Ferndale team symbolizes a change in America that one man made when he took his first swing at home plate 66 years ago. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to integrate Major League Baseball when he took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The personal courage that Robinson reflected, and the endless stream of racial taunts he endured, inspired the movie “42” that debuts April 12. The film, starring Chadwick Boseman, Harrison Ford, Chris Meloni and T.R. Knight, derives its title from the number that Robinson wore during his Hall of Fame career.
If you want a personal example of Robinson’s broad legacy, consider the friendship of Ferndale baseball players Levi Hess and Johordan Davis.
Hess, who is white, and Davis, who is black, grew up together and became close in large part because of the baseball diamond. They have played baseball games together since they were small children, now each wearing the uniform of their middle school. Davis is a top pitcher on the Ferndale team, while Hess serves as his baseball battery mate as starting catcher.
Hess, Davis and the Ferndale players — so young that perhaps only their grandparents remember watching Jackie Robinson play — say they want to see “42.”
“I think it would be incredible to be able to see what he actually went through, so you could understand it more,” said Zachary Behe, expressing the sentiment for his teammates.
Ferndale Head Coach Kenny Angel said that Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball foreshadowed changes in the country that came later through the civil rights movement.
If not for Robinson, the Ferndale baseball players not only wouldn’t share a team together, but wouldn’t share classes or neighborhoods together.
At another baseball field in a historically black section of High Point, a league set up for youth ages 9-12 and 13-15 years old, respectively, also reflects the legacy of Robinson.
The Macedonia Baseball League was launched 15 years ago, in part, to promote baseball as an activity for black youth, said Dell McCormick, executive director of the Macedonia Family Resource Center.
About 1,500 boys and girls of all races have participated in the Macedonia Baseball League since its first season, McCormick said. In May, on the opening day of this summer’s season, the 12 teams will recognize the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s historic first step out of the dugout.
“Reintroducing baseball to this community was something to just get their attention,” McCormick said. “Without Jackie Robinson, none of this would have been possible.”
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The Macedonia Family Resource Center at 401 Lake Ave. in High Point will start its youth baseball season in May. The Macedonia Baseball League was launched 15 years ago in part to foster interest in baseball among black youth. For more information or to volunteer or contribute to the league, call the center at 883-0300 or check the website www.macedoniacenter.org/Macedonia/Programs.html.
A movie that debuts in theaters here and across the country April 12 chronicles a moment 66 years ago that today seems hard to imagine ever needed to happen, but changed America forever and for the better.
The film “42” traces the early career of Jackie Robinson, who became the first black man to play Major League Baseball in the spring of 1947. Robinson turned into a Hall of Fame player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his step onto the diamond of the nation’s pastime reverberated far beyond baseball parks.
The movie stars Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, Harrison Ford as Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey and Chris Meloni as team manager Leo Durocher. Rickey is credited with bucking racial attitudes of his time and giving Robinson a chance to play what had been until then an all-white professional sport.
Robinson endured racially charged taunts and threats at each game he played his first season, suffering language that would be unthinkable today as publicly accepted at a sporting arena. The movie will reflect Robinson’s courage in putting up with the insults hurled at him while maintaining his own dignity.
While Robinson’s achievement often is seen as the birth of the modern civil rights movement that ended legalized segregation, it actually took place against the backdrop of black Americans seeking greater freedom and rights during and after World War II, said Paul Ringel, assistant professor of history at High Point University.
Black soldiers who fought during the war, and black Americans who helped on the home front, believed their service merited better treatment for people of their race, Ringel said.
“Jackie Robinson’s integration of the Majors in ‘47 is kind of an extension of the push for advances made during World War II,” he said.
Black Americans during the war had what was termed the Double V Campaign, meaning victory overseas against fascism and victory at home over segregation and Jim Crow laws that separated the races, Ringel said.