Contributed by F. Anthony D’Alessandro
Children who are perfecting baseball skills on steamy sugarcane plantations or inner city lots, as well as African-American and other youthful enthusiasts speaking Korean, Japanese, and Spanish, have the opportunity to realize their diamond dreams because of Jackie Robinson’s courage. Robinson’s sacrifices single handedly opened our national pastime (baseball) to anyone of talent.
My first baseball experiences go back to a patch-quilt urban lot adorned with old tires for bases. On those dripping lemonade-stand summers in Brooklyn, I scooted of to the local junk-filled city lot, dragging my ebony baseball bat wrapped in electrical tape and held together by a screw. I dreamed of becoming the next Jackie Robinson. Looking back at those days with my friends, especially Clayton always triggers fond memories.
Best friend or not, Clayton’s honesty broke my heart. He said something like. “Ant Knee (Anthony), you can’t be Jackie Robinson by just trying to look like him.” The 10 year-old philosopher taught me that the well-lived life also focused on positive and kind actions.
In the heyday of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson and New York Yankee Jolting Joe DiMaggio reigned supreme as larger- than- life baseball legends in our neighborhood. My big sister, Giuseppina, escorted the 10 year-old me onto a Brooklyn subway to go see “Number 42” joust with opposing teams.
I stood nearly mesmerized when I saw my first major league ballpark. Weed-choked lots, pimpled puddles, peeling old tires and wrinkled cement, looked nothing like the verdant, major league carpet. Ebbets Field, impeccably blanketed by fresh, green grass, spread out its magnificent canvas before me.
Dozens of gazelle-like baseball players gracefully glided past me. I found it incredible that the great Jackie Robinson played his superb game on a stage that I could almost reach out and touch.
After the game, Giuseppina dragged me to a remote runway area guarded by a high fence. Two dozen or so Brooklyn Dodger players, wearing metal spikes, clattered past on their way to the locker room. My big sister lifted me high onto her shoulders so I could see my heroes face to face.
Suddenly, I heard shouting. A boy snatched a player’s hat and ran off with it. The player admonished the boy, but to no avail. A few seconds later, I felt a hand as large a baseball mitt blanketing my bristly crew cut. Mr. Robinson paused, and with his honest and unbridled smile, gently placed his Brooklyn cap with its big “B” on my head. He continued on to the locker room, turning back just once to watch my reaction.
From that moment on, I became a Jackie Robinson fan exclusively. The incomparable Robinson, the first African-American to break the color line and play in baseball’s big leagues, who electrified fans at Ebbets Field, had placed his baseball cap on my head!
A LIFELONG INFLUENCE
Now, barely past the 60th anniversary of Jackie’s major league debut, my life reflects his influence. My early proficiency with the written word was the direct result of devouring piles of newspapers, magazines, and books describing his exploits. I copied his ball field mannerisms. In Little League, I stutter-stepped and danced on the bases. I taunted pitchers with bluffed steals. Disappointingly, my attempts at copying Number 42’s panache faltered. That type of talent existed only for a few moments in time, and Mr. Robinson held all rights to it.
Still, I mirrored Number 42’s daring base stealing rumba. I continued to model his batting stance, holding my bat high above my head. My Louisville Slugger bat pointed up as if to poke our slumbering Coney Island skies.
Clayton’s granddad, a Robinson devotee and raconteur, told us countless stories about Jackie. Most of these stories revealed the difficulties Robinson overcame. I sat, mouth agape, as my mind soaked up his granddad’s wisdom.
To this day, I’m amazed at how my sainted Sicilian mom and patient teachers put up with the proliferation of 42s that I tattooed on my socks, shirts, sneakers, chalkboards, notebooks, and even schoolyard walls. My parents and teachers, of course, firmly urged me to temper my enthusiasm for posting the number all over my belongings and surroundings.
With the passing of the years, I’ve just begun to appreciate how much Jackie Robinson meant to me during my Brooklyn Dodger summers and throughout life. Thanks too, to Clayton’s granddad who helped me realize how Mr. Robinson stood up to hatred, yet refused to hate in return.
As an adult, I recall making a few unpopular public decisions, which were usually greeted with a Bronx Cheer. Some of my friends and colleagues marveled at my composure, but I’d realized all along that any problems facing me were “minor league” in contrast to what my childhood hero had encountered. I would explain, “I learned about composure by watching Number 42. If I still owned that treasured Jackie Robinson hat, I’d wear it to all board of education meetings as a reminder.”
A colleague blurted, “You mean that you once possessed a Robinson hat?”
“Sure did,” I smugly said.
Despite mean-spirited taunts, Jackie Robinson controlled his justified anger. His integrity and towering strength reshaped the fabric of our society. He remains a role model easily seen, but not easily imitated.
Jackie Robinson passed away on October 24, 1972. Yet, he’s never totally left. His legend lives today, celebrated not only in my heart, but as a critical component of the historic soul of modern America.
THE END …… FINE
MATURE LIVING MAGAZINE, September 2008
Prof. F. Anthony D’Alessandro
Addendum: The author wrote this essay for Black History Month. Black History Month in the USA originated early in the 2oth Century. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a Harvard educated scholar, wanted to ensure that the contributions to U.S. History by Black-Americans were recognized. The celebration grew from a week-long program to a month- long educational experience. Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were both born in the month of February, therefore, Woodson selected February as the appropriate time for this historic exploration. Every February, Black History Month is celebrated on the United States.
INTRODUCTION TO THE “WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, JACKIE ROBINSON” STORY ON THE PREVIOUS PAGE…
The story is about an historic and heroic Black-American athlete, Jackie Robinson, who helped shape the life of a Sicilian-American boy. His hero taught him lifetime lessons in courage, honesty, and integrity. That boy, a man now, is a writer, poet, professor and he reflects on Robinson’s impact on his life, and indeed the entire American society. Robinson’s accomplishments have been woven into the history of the USA