The Dodgers are one of the most successful and storied teams in all of baseball. They have been to the World Series 19 times, winning six of them. A Dodger has won the Cy Young award 12 times, the Most Valuable Player award 13 times, the Rookie of the Year award 18 times, and 45 members of the Hall of Fame were Dodgers for at least part of their career, in addition to three executives and eight managers.
The Dodgers have hit for 10 cycles, pitched 22 no-hitters (including one unforgettable perfect game) sent over 300 players and coaches to the All-Star game, and have had 10 numbers retired by the team.
Four winners of the Ford C. Frick award for broadcasting have brought you the sights and sounds of the National Pastime, weaving their stories and insights into a tapestry binding the generations.
Nine different ballparks including Ebbets Field, The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Dodger Stadium have borne witness to the team known variously as the Atlantics, Bridegrooms, Superbas, Robins, Trolley Dodgers, and finally the Dodgers, fielding thousands of players, entertaining millions of fans, and providing a home for the inspiration and nourishment of inestimable, incomparable, and history changing dreams.
But there is no greater Dodger than Jackie Robinson.
I find it incredibly difficult to write this article. It does not feel as though there are words appropriate enough to properly pay tribute to a man such as Jackie Robinson. In many ways, his name feels hallowed, one that ought to be mentioned only with reverence and care.
Vin Scully, one of the great wordsmiths of our time, a Ford C. Frick award winner in his own right, tells a story about a trip to the Catskills years ago and a day of ice-skating with Jackie Robinson. As he was lacing up his skates, Robinson asked Scully if he could race him. Scully remarked that he knew that Robinson played baseball and football, but he had no idea that he was an ice skater. Robinson replied that this was the first time he had ever skated. Scully asked him why he would want to race of all things if he had never been on skates before?
Robinson replied, “That’s how I’m going to learn.”
That is how Robinson approached baseball, jumping right in, despite the adversity and disadvantages, and not just trying to stay on his feet, but to run, to race, to win.
And run he did. His steal of home during the 1955 World Series remains one of the more iconic moments in baseball history. Robinson would steal home 19 times in his career amongst 197 total stolen bases. Robinson led the league twice in steals, including 1947, his memorable first year in the league on his way to Rookie of the Year honors, an award that now bears his name.
Among other accomplishments in his 10 years in the big leagues, Robinson hit for one of those 10 Dodger cycles, was an All-Star six times, won the batting title and MVP in one stellar season, and was elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1962.
These achievements would be noteworthy for any player, but as the world knows, Robinson’s successes on the field were not only against strong competition but in the face of the ignorance of racism; a society divided and a spotlight shining squarely on him. He carried on his shoulders not only the pride of his family, but the burden of legacy; as the first African-American major league baseball player, how he did would shape the future for generations, and he knew that in every at-bat, every swing, every throw to first. He knew it in every spike high slide of an opponent, in every hotel, every death threat, and every clubhouse.
On one trip to Cincinnati, the Dodgers gathered in the clubhouse to discuss the latest death threat to Robinson. Snipers were perched on the rooftops for protection, and the air was thick with the accustomed tension. In another one of Scully’s tales of Dodgers lore, he remarked on the prophetic comment of left fielder Gene Hermanski. When discussing ways to cope with the threat, Hermanski suggested that all the Dodgers should wear number 42, Robinson’s number, and Robinson would be protected.
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That same number 42 would be retired by the Dodgers in 1972, just a few months before Robinson left the world he changed forever, at far too young an age. Many teams retire the numbers of special players, of their own lists of greats to wear their uniforms, but only Jackie Robinson has had his number retired by the entire league, so important is he to the fabric of the game.
And now, every year on April 15, the anniversary of the day Robinson made his major league debut, a day celebrated as “Jackie Robinson Day” by Major League Baseball, every Dodger, indeed every player on every team, unites to don number 42 to commemorate the incomparable steps he took on the base-paths and on the path of human history. Robinson is representative of all we praise in sports, for it is a microcosm of the human condition, as Tennyson’s Ulysses put it, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
There have been many great Dodgers over the years, and many great ballplayers have laced up their cleats in the hopes of bringing home a World Series, etching their names in the annals of baseball history, and weaving their careers in the tapestry of our National Pastime. But as our nation has faced division throughout the years, when it has faced threat from home or abroad, when players have come together and inspired the hearts of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, families, and friends, we can look to the legacy of one Jack Roosevelt Robinson as a beacon of hope.
There is no greater Dodger. There is no greater major leaguer. His class, his dignity, and his grace, these are the hallmarks of greatness. In times of trouble and times of hope, we have Robinson to lead the way.
That’s how we’re all going to learn.