By the time Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 as Major League Baseball`s first African American player, his name and accomplishments were already well known to me.
As a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, I was aware of Robinson`s athletic achievements. Robinson—whose 60th anniversary as baseball`s first African-American player is being celebrated this weekend—was a legend.
Baseball consumed me. Although the major leagues didn`t arrive in Los Angeles until 1957, I followed it with a passion that few could match. Every evening I read the box scores from the Los Angeles Herald-Express. In those days, games back east were played during the day and the results were printed in the late edition.
Then, after I had digested the big league statistics, I turned my attention to the local California Triple-A minor league teams: the Hollywood Stars, the Los Angeles Angels, the San Francisco Seals and the Sacramento Solons.
But while I was old enough to appreciate and admire Robinson`s skills when he took the field, I was in no way mature enough to understand what he had to endure.
During Robinson`s first game against the Boston Braves, the Braves` manager, Ben Chapman, yelled out at Jackie, "Hey nigger, why don`t you go back to the cotton field where you belong?"
Even one of Robinson`s teammates, Eddie Stanky, was an enemy. Before the opening game against the Braves, Stanky approached Robinson and said," "Before I play with you I want you to know how I feel about it. I want you to know I don`t like it. I want you to know I don`t like you."
Despite the overwhelming odds against his success created by the atmosphere of hate that surrounded him Robinson, who lead the Dodgers to six pennants in ten years, went on to be a Hall of Fame baseball player and also one of America`s key civil rights figures.
As Robinson, looking back on his career, said:
"I had to fight hard against loneliness, abuse and the knowledge that any mistake I made would be magnified because I was the only black man out there. Many people resented my impatience and honesty, but I never cared about acceptance as much as I cared about respect."
But on Jackie Robinson Day on April 15th, as the deserved celebrations of Robinson, his career and his role as one of America`s most important 20th century figures, play out across the country, there are sad and ironic footnotes to his story.
The first is that so few Americans, including major league players, know anything at all about Robinson or his sacrifices. This, in a world where only a handful of people can identify the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or recognize a photograph of John F. Kennedy, is not altogether surprising.
But it is disappointing.
Second, and an even greater disappointment is that, despite Robinson`s crusade on their behalf, so few Blacks play baseball today.
According to a 2006 study by the University of Central Florida`s Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports, only 8.4 percent of major league players are black, a decline from 9 percent in 2004 and 2005.
This is the fewest number of baseball playing blacks in since 1986.
The good news is that neither of these two facts will in any way detract from the recognition of Robinson and baseball`s "proudest and most powerful moment" at Dodger Stadium.