Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Things remembered, or not

Two days from now all of baseball will wear 42 again, honoring the man who made it one of the game's religious artifacts. The liturgy will pour forth again, all the old stories about sacrifice and pain and the uplifting of baseball into the modern age. Bottomless reservoirs will fill with words about Jackie Robinson and his meaning, who he was and his impact on America As A Whole.

Some of those words will actually be true.

Or almost true. Or not entirely obscured in a haze of myth.

Here is what happens when a man's life has the sort of impact Robinson's did: Human nature compels us to make it even more impactful than it actually was. The man becomes a saint, and his life the life of a saint. And in a strange sort of way, it diminishes him.

Thought about this the other night while watching the second part of the two-part Ken Burns doc about Jackie, because the best part about it was it did not mythologize him. If he was the man who became a living symbol of civil rights activism, he was also a Republican who refused for too long to see that his party had no place for such activism. And if he continued, for the rest of his life, to fight for civil rights, he struggled to find his place within the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which forgot what he symbolized and sometimes ridiculed him as out of touch.

His life in its last decade had its sorrow and its failures, revealing that baseball's saint was also a flawed human being who made mistakes and sometimes miscalculated. And yet, in doing so, it somehow made his life even more a life to be celebrated.

If he was the man compelled to hold in his outrage through that long summer of 1947, he was also the man who fully released it thereafter, playing with an uncompromising fierceness and speaking against baseball's continuing racial inequities with bluntness. The latter, in retrospect, was even more courageous than the former, because Robinson was speaking to a nation not ready to hear him. In reaction, some of the same writers who championed him in '47 came to loathe him, to call him a whiner and a complainer and weary of him because he simply would not shut up.

He was, it seemed, no longer The Good Negro. What he was, instead, was what he'd always been: A man in full, imbued with a finely honed sense of justice and the courage to speak out when justice was not being served.

Not a saint. Not an icon. Not a number to be worn by all of baseball as some holy relic. A man.

But, dear lord, what a man.


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