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Numbers Game

Now that Jackie Robinson Day is over, I will just vent my spleen a trifle about how unpleasant and wrong-headed YHB finds the now-traditional observance of all the ballplayers wearing number 42. The Jackie Robinson Foundation and MLB are now using iam42.com. And you know what? Jackie Robinson deserves some proper respect. I get that. He was a Dodger, but still, respect for being first.

You know who else deserves respect? Larry Doby. #14, Larry Doby, of the Cleveland Indians. Because he also had to put up with a whole hell of a lot of racism, and came through it to play in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson was not magic, any more than Rosa Parks was magic, or Martin Luther King, Junior for that matter. The people who came after them still had to put up with shit, and they don’t deserve to be forgotten. Larry Doby was a Hall of Famer who broke the color barrier along with Jackie Robinson, and to have everybody in baseball wear 42 and nobody wear 14—well, that’s just wrong.

You know who else doesn’t deserve to be forgotten? Hank Thompson. Wore #7 for the Saint Louis Browns ninety days after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Do you think he put up with any less shit than Jackie? Hank Thompson was no Hall of Famer, just a good, solid third baseman, mostly for the Giants (where he wore # 16), and no, unlike Jackie Robinson, who as everybody knows was selected because of his nobility and self-control, Hank Thompson was a drunk who would kick your ass as soon as look at you. And he was a black man who played Major League Baseball in 1947. And his team-mate in St. Louis, Willard Brown, played only twenty-one games in MLB, wore # 15. Wasn’t Willard Brown a hero, too?

Sam Jethroe wore #5 for the Boston Braves in 1950, as the only black man to play for a Boston team. Think he had to put up with much? Bob Trice wore #23 with the Athletics in 1953, the only black man to play for a Philadelphia team. Was he not a hero?

Look, it’s great that Jackie Robinson was Jackie Robinson, and I have no problem with MLB having a Jackie Robinson Day. What I object to is the deliberate effort to erase every other African-American player in the early years of integrated baseball. The story we tell ourselves about the integration of baseball in 1947 is that Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. That’s the story we imply about the lack of integration in 1946: that we needed a Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball. We needed his nobility, his outstanding talent, his self-control and self-sacrifice. And I’m glad, really, that it was Jackie Robinson. But what if the St. Louis Browns had give a Hank Thompson or a Willard Brown a chance to put their uniform on in September of 1946? Sure, it would have been a failure—there might have been a brawl, and maybe even some serious injuries. And they would have played. And then somebody else would have come up next—maybe Jackie Robinson or Larry Doby or someone else—and then someone else and someone else. The reason Hank Thompson didn’t break the color barrier is not because he wasn’t good enough, or noble enough, or sober enough. It’s that no white team let him. It’s because of irrational prejudice, discrimination and hate.

The story we tell ourselves about the Civil Rights movement is that Rosa Parks just suddenly refused to move to the back of the bus, and then Martin Luther King had a dream, and then suddenly everybody realized that segregation was wrong. What’s wrong with that story has nothing to do with the greatness of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. It has to do with erasing everybody else, and all the work that a whole movement put in for decades. It has to do with erasing our own history—our history as white people, as black people, as Hispanics, as Jews, as Northerners or Southerners or Midwesterners, what we were doing at the time, and for years and years before and after.

Jackie Robinson was first, yes, and a hero, and a great American. The story we have started telling ourselves about him, though, can’t be a great story—a true story, a story about ourselves that isn’t just a lie to ourselves—if we want all the players to wear that 42 and to erase #14 and #7 and #15 and #5 and all the other numbers.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


An additional consequence of telling ourselves that the story is only about a few exceptional individuals is that we can then more easily excuse ourselves for not playing a larger role in the struggles of our times. Well, perhaps I have not done what I could, but could my actions have any real effect if I am not that exceptional?

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