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Column: Baseball games or not, it will still be Jackie Robinson Day

Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, circa 1950.
Wednesday would have been Jackie Robinson Day had the Major League Baseball season started as scheduled last month.
(Curt Gunther / Getty Images)

Maybe if the significance of Jackie Robinson’s story started and ended with the integration of Major League Baseball, one could characterize the absence of Jackie Robinson Day as unfortunate.

After all, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, baseball is not being played right now so why bother celebrating a player? There are simply more pressing issues at the moment and we can go back to honoring Robinson next year … you know, when things return to normal.

The thing is, though the CliffsNotes on Robinson’s life center on Ebbets Field in 1947, his story is so much more than that. The normalcy we long for is his story.

“We talk about breaking the color barrier in baseball, but Jackie’s plight stretched beyond that,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “We are talking about breaking barriers of all kinds across more than baseball and more than sports. It’s not just about race. This is where people fall short. It’s also about gender equality, it’s about equality regardless of sexual orientation … all of this stuff is under this umbrella of equality. That’s why Jackie Robinson Day is so important. It’s beyond baseball.

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“In talking with folks like Don Newcombe and Rachel Robinson, people who knew Jackie, they all talked about the fire inside of him. The courage and intelligence to know what to stand up for, when to fight and when to take the high road. That’s why he was picked to be that person. To be the first. Because Jackie understood the magnitude of it all. He knew this would impact more than the game.”

This is why the public’s observance must continue Wednesday despite the absence of games, and why when the world does begin to turn on a more familiar axis the league needs to recognize Jackie Robinson Day with the same regalia and enthusiasm despite the actual date being in our rearview.

Show the footage. Tell the stories. Wear No. 42 and smile just as it had done before. Why should the baseball be married to a specific date when COVID-19 shredded the globe’s calendar weeks ago? Robinson’s statue at Dodger Stadium was to have moved to center field by now, but hasn’t. The Jackie Robinson Museum in New York was to have opened by now, but it hasn’t. Spike Lee recently posted the fifth draft of his screenplay for a Robinson biopic he wrote in 1996. The film still hasn’t been made.

“We’ve all had a lot of time to think about stuff, our life, what happened, what didn’t,” Lee said on Instagram, while holding a copy of the script. “Don’t worry about it if you don’t like baseball, sports. This is a great American story.”

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Indeed it is.

Robinson had already been arrested multiple times for standing up against racism long before this date in 1947 made him a national treasure. He was Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks, refusing to go to the back of a bus while stationed at Camp Hood in Texas, ultimately leading to another arrest in 1944. He would hold fundraisers to raise money to bail civil rights leaders in the South out of jail. In 1964, Robinson established a bank in Harlem — the Freedom National Bank — becoming the first African American to do so. His life was the epitome of perseverance and ingenuity.

It was groundbreaking. Patriotic.

You want the country to get back to normal? Then we should remember to honor those who risked their lives defending her and making her keep her promises.

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“I think that any person of leadership is under a microscope, but in my opinion, as a minority, that microscope is more finite,” Roberts said. “What he did and what the people in the civil rights movement did, what they sacrificed … I feel it is a responsibility to do right by them. It is never lost on me … who I am as a minority manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers.”

The league and the Jackie Robinson Foundation have planned virtual observations of the day, with programs designed to educate people about Robinson’s life on and off the field. Information can be found at MLB.com/42, JRLegacy.org and jackierobinson.org.

Baseball should keep its honored tradition of wearing No. 42 leaguewide and taking the time to talk about Robinson during the broadcasts, whenever they resume. Not simply because of what he meant to the sport but because what he means to the country — still.

Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers lines up for the national anthem before a game against the Cincinnati Reds on Jackie Robinson Day 2019
Kenley Jansen, far right, and his Dodgers teammates wear No. 42 to honor Jackie Robinson on April 15, 2019, at Dodger Stadium.
(Harry How / Getty Images)
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