Tuesday, April 16, 2013

What Courage Means

Yesterday, as I was enjoying a rare glimpse of baseball on the MLB's site, I saw these players all sporting numbers they don't normally wear:

Caption: Cincinnati Reds relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman faces Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins in the top of the ninth inning in Cincinnati, April 15, 2013.

Image credit: Screenshot of Major League Baseball video by Cujo359

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson Day, when all players in Major League baseball wear Jackie Robinson's number to celebrate his leading role in desegregating baseball.

What did Robinson have to endure to do this? It doesn't take much imagination to realize that he would bear the brunt of taunts from both the fans and his fellow players. Any fan of the game would know there would be lots of physical intimidation from the latter. What most of us might not have imagined was what was probably the hardest part of Robinson's experience:

[Dodgers general manager Branch] Rickey had warned Jack – that’s what his friends and family called him – that the worst kind of race-baiting would come his way, and that he’d have to keep his cool.

Are you looking, Robinson asked Rickey, for a black man “who is afraid to fight back?”

“I need,” Rickey replied, “a player who has the guts not to fight back.”

Jackie Robinson and Remaking of Baseball

Caption: Jackie Robinson in 1954.

Image credit: Bob Sandberg/Look/Wikimedia

That was the deal Rickey and Robinson struck. For the first year, Robinson couldn't retaliate. As that quote implies, this wasn't in Robinson's nature. He was a former football player, and someone used to responding to force with some of his own. Yet in the Major Leagues of 1947, he'd have to endure bean balls, spikings, and more for an entire season, and not retaliate. Rickey knew that if Robinson did retaliate, then they would be blamed, not the bigots and racists who committed the offenses.

Why did Rickey do this? No doubt, part of the answer is that he thought it was the right thing to do, but part was that the Dodgers were always the also-rans in New York City baseball behind the more successful Yankees and Giants, and black ballplayers were an untapped resource of talent. Why did Robinson do it? Reading his Wikipedia bio, it's clear that part of the reason was that he wanted to do something for his fellow African Americans. He was in the March on Washington long after his playing days were over. He remained both an outspoken critic of baseball's racism and a proponent of its reforms. But part of the answer also had to be that he loved playing the game.

Rickey and Robinson had personal and self-serving reasons for doing what they did. That doesn't change the fact that what they both did, particularly Robinson, took a lot of courage and fortitude. We seem to have a paper cutout idea of what courage means - that it only takes courage to do good things, or to do them for someone else's benefit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Courage is knowing it's likely you'll be hurt and suffer abuse, but doing what you need to do anyway. Courage is sometimes not hurting someone else, even when every part of your being screams that you should. Even if what those two men did had only been for their own self-interest, it still made our lives better, and it still would have taken more courage than many of us have had to summon for so long. That's why we honor them.

Jackie Robinson's life had many things to teach us, but in light of recent events, I think the most important lesson it taught us is what courage is, and how powerful a force it can be.

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