Friday, April 15, 2011

How Jackie Robinson Impacted New York

Going into the third year of Citi Field’s existence, the beautiful park in Willets Point/Flushing has been maligned with controversy. It’s been soaked with snark and populist anger; the financial crisis that crippled Citibank made the moniker “Taxpayer Field” stick for a few weeks in the local media as the financial services company received TARP funds. It has also been lambasted as another publicly-funded stadium; though the Yankees were a larger target, the Mets didn’t exactly escape criticism for taking public funds to build its new home. Yet, there’s another critique that sticks out as peculiar and that’s for the homage paid to arguably the most important sports figure in American history, Jackie Robinson.

There were some people, even friends, who questioned why the Mets paid a significant and permanent homage to a man who never played for them (and in a twisted turn, giving respect for a franchise that left for Los Angeles). They felt that retiring “42” throughout baseball was the ultimate honor; one that would have deemed any other permanent remembrance unnecessary. However, Fred Wilpon – owner of the Mets – is known as much for his reverence for the Brooklyn Dodgers era and New York’s National League heritage as he has become notorious for his and his team’s current financial issues. No matter what can be said about the stewardship of the Mets over the years, he openly embraced the city’s other baseball history when Citi Field was built.

He knew that the legacy of Robinson is in the DNA of New York.

As sports fans have learned over the last century, New York City, not just the borough of Brooklyn, is a place that has no problem telling you it demands, rather expects winning. [NOTE: For those who haven’t heard, Brooklyn is a rather proud borough. To this day and certainly on this day, many Brooklynites are celebrating Robinson as one of their own. And he was.] It’s not exactly unlike any other city or town with a franchise built on ticket sales, merchandise and television. Yet, even if we don’t admit it as a whole, NYC demands some overt personality and work ethic en route to absolute dominance. We want alpha males that define leadership, even if it doesn’t always work. We want offensive flair and pizzazz though defense made a few of our teams into contenders and champions. Most of all, we don’t care where you came from or where you might decide to live during the season, but we want you to be one of us while you’re here.

The thing about Robinson and his Dodgers was while they became the most progressive sociological experiment – three more black players came to the fold after Robinson, including Roy Campanella – success on the diamond wasn’t easy in a city where there’s always another team to be compared to (or in those days, two). The Dodgers were much more successful than their rival Giants, whose questionable management and ownership almost wasted the talents of Willie Mays (almost). Yet, the Yankees were… the Yankees.

The battles between the teams in seven World Series (six with Robinson on the team) were reflections of a contrast between fan bases and adopted ideologies, even if reality may have differed. What you think of the Yankees now is what people thought of in the 1940s & 50s: more Upper East Side & Wall Street than Mott Haven and Fordham Road, rich, stodgy, arrogant, lily-white, yet head and shoulders better than all comers. The Brooklyn Dodgers were the ideal opposite in every way, even though putting a baseball team on equal financial standing with butcher shops or grocers is a huge stretch. The fact that the Dodgers spurred integration in professional team sports gave Brooklyn a colored stitch in its flag that it waved to the world.

Robinson represented a new direction for the sport, but his presence in New York was a challenge for a city that calls itself a melting pot. The country’s population as undergoing significant shifts as the First Great Migration had found blacks settling and developing roots in the North. During his time with the Dodgers, the Second Great Migration found African-Americans spreading out further across the country, but still seeking employment in New York. Always a destination for European immigrants, NYC‘s population began to swell and “brown” a bit. The Migrations allowed Southern-born blacks to grow roots into the city while waves of Latinos made their way to the Boroughs as well. Truth be told, no matter how open New York claimed to be, these new residents clashed with the mainstays; causing racial tensions before, during and after Jackie.

What Robinson did, however, was prove the old adage about sports; we love you as long as you’re winning. From his first World Series appearance as a rookie to garnering MVP honors in 1949, Robinson was a true franchise player that owner Walter O’Malley (yes, I said his name here) and general manager Branch Rickey built around. His accolades speak for themselves, but above it all, a stubborn dignity to face the venom on and off the field made Robinson a black public icon where few existed. This especially matters because as New York City was telling the world it was open for business in pre-World War II times, it had an extremely difficult time embracing ethnic diversity within its ports.

There’s no question that Jackie Robinson was more than a baseball player; on a national scale, he remains the most transcendent African-American athlete in the history of team sports. However, in terms of his importance to New York City – not just Brooklyn – how his presence impacted the city’s racial dynamics could and should never be forgotten. We take that for granted in this modern metropolis; generations of New Yorkers never witnessed overt and wide-scale racial strife, though we are certainly aware that racism is alive and real.

Though it’s far too late to change the permanent honors bestowed by Wilpon and the Mets, I hope they don’t even consider altering or removing one brick of the glorious Rotunda. I hope the larger-than-life “42” stands tall, waiting for more baseball fans (Mets or otherwise) to take pictures with and admire. I hope the footsteps casted in his memory remind each visitor to Citi Field that each one of us can cast our own for better days ahead. I hope those who still question why a Dodger is revered in Mets territory can take a glance at the still-changing ethnic diversity of the fans inside the stadium and say, “now, I get it.”

Thank you, Jackie.

Say What?!?!: I live next to Jackie Robinson Park here in Harlem; a 12.77 acre, ten-block gem that’s been through hell and back over the years. What used to be called Colonial Park was the last place you wanted to be during the day, let alone at night. It was renamed in Robinson’s honor in 1978; the midst of some of Harlem’s darkest days. It took far more than a name change to clean up JRP, rather two decades of persistence and championing to bring it from the brink. The Park has been a part of my family’s history for close to 20 years as we’ve been a part of its revitalization.

I mention this because at its northern end borders the former home of the final version of the Polo Grounds where Willie Mays once roamed. There was likely consternation about naming the Park in Robinson’s honor, but you couldn’t tell around these parts. The Giants may have called Harlem home before leaving for San Francisco, but in this community, Robinson and Mays were teammates in a far different game than the one on the diamond.


Vinny Hardy said...

Nice read, scribeness, as you call it. All true and everyone should take time and reflect on everyting you mentioned.

Jason Clinkscales said...

It's one of those things that I'm reminded of constantly, especially because the park down the street from me. I couldn't imagine what he or Campanella or Don Newcombe or even the unheralded Larry Doby had to endure.