Today is the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson laced up his cleats, put on his Dodgers jersey and took the field as the first black athlete to play major league baseball. What Jackie Robinson did was historic. It was groundbreaking. It opened doors and tore down barriers. It created the opportunity for us to celebrate the other great minority players that came after him. From Hank Aaron to Willie Mays to Roberto Clemente to Tony Gwynn, the first step was taken by Jackie Robinson.
The anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier has been discussed and celebrated all week long. It has been, and rightfully so, the subject of special segments on ESPN’s SportsCenter, Pardon the Interruption and The Sports Reporters. It’s been featured in newspapers and magazines, discussed on sports talk radio and mentioned at bars and around water coolers all over the country. I’ve even heard Jackie’s break into the National League be referred to as “the single most important event in the history of American sports.”
I am Hispanic and, as a result, a minority. However, I am fortunate to say that I have never been the subject of overt or blatant discrimination. If my racial background ever served as a reason for which I was held back from anything, I am glad to say I am not aware of it. With that in mind, I feel I don’t have the same level of appreciation African-Americans or other minorities may have for Jackie’s achievement. Yet I do appreciate the courage it took for Jackie to endure and persevere through the name calling, taunts and flat-out hatred that was directed at him for playing a game.
I submit, however, that it was not the single most important event in the history of American sports. As historically great as Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough was not only for baseball, but also for all sports in our country, the individuals who directed their hatred at number 42 where, for the most part, nobody’s. Fans, front office personnell and other baseball players do not even begin to compare to the power possessed by the leader of a nation.
Eleven years before Jackie Robinson stood at the plate against the Boston Braves, Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. What Jesse did in the ’36 Games was the mother of all landmark performances in sports. He traveled to a country led by a monster whose political platform was the supremacy of his race over the rest of the world. Jesse competed in front of a nation of individuals who came together through hate and believed he wasn’t worthy of living, let alone competing in their Olympics. The scope of Jackie Robinson’s accomplishment was one country that, at its worst, had enslaved other human beings based on the color of their skin and still maintained segregation because of this same criterion. The scope of Jesse Owens’ accomplishment, however, was one country that brutally and systematically killed people based on their ethnicity and religious beliefs.
I am honored to be a sports fan in an era where I can cheer for Dontrelle Willis, Jason Taylor and Dwyane Wade, all of which are black players on my favorite teams. I understand that they, and the other black and minority players, owe a great deal to what Jackie Robinson made possible 60 years ago. I also believe that Jackie would not have been able to take those first nerve-wracking steps out of the Dodgers dugout had Jesse Owens not proved to the world that black athletes do indeed belong in the arena competing with everyone else. Like he did four times in Berlin in 1936, when comparing Jackie to Jesse, Jesse continues to come in first.