“Il a gagné ses épaulettes” Jackie Robinson



The movie 42 has done well at the box office. It apprises  another generation about the incredible struggle of  Jackie Robinson  as he became the first black to play major league baseball. The film zeroes in Robinson’s two years (46 and 47 when he broke the colour ball in the professional leagues.The movie is very accurate in this regard telescoping as films must interrelated events into snap shots. Robinson’s cause was championed by an extraordinary baseball exec named Branch Rickey, a serious Christian who could not abide segregation. He also knew that there was a motherlode of talent in the Negro leagues which he could profitably mine. In this he was proved correct. But back to Robinson.

If any white person thinks he knows and understands the travails of blacks in Jim Crow America, get that out of your mind. Arnold Rampersad’s  1997 biography of Robinson outlines  in excruciating detail the depths of cruelty inflicted on him by wool hats and ignorant crackers. Simply reading this, makes one’s blood boil. Robinson’s enemies even included the ignorant yahoos he played with—-and ultimately won over with his class.

Robinson was a brilliant four sport athlete excelling in track, basketball and football as well as baseball. At one time he was the best broad jumper in America one  who would have competed in the 1940 Olympics were it not for the war. Part of his deal with Dodger GM Branch Rickey was that for two years he had to take the high road of never complaining, of “having the guts not to fight back” as Rickey ordered him. Robinson was a Christian and  with herculean discipline he did turn the other cheek but after that he took no guff and for the rest of his life he spoke his mind about Jim Crow and in particular the failure of the US political system to integrate blacks in the public and cultural life of the country.

Robinson was forever grateful to Canadians, in particular Montrealers who embraced him in his first year in pro ball, 1946.”I owe more to Canadians than they’ll ever know”, he said in retrospect. ”They were the first to make me feel my natural self.”

In 1946 led by the clutch-hitting Robbie, the Royals captured the Little World Series and Robinson made the mistake of appearing on the field after the game and the ecstatic largely French Canadian crowd  hugged him and kissed him  and literally mobbed him before he could break away, The crowd sang, “il a gagné ses épaulettes” (He has earned his stripes).This led Robinson’s friend Sam Maltin, who was a sportswriter for  socialist papers (including the Pittsburgh Courier) to write, “It was probably the only day in history that a black man ran from a white mob with love instead of lynching  on its mind.”

Robinson earned his stripes alright.Isaiah had a similar take on this  when he said “By his stripes we are healed” 53:4-5.This is a reference to the Suffering Servant motif by which Jesus identified himself. A better riff on this would be  instead of Jesus died for my sins would be the Protestant hymn, “No cross, no crown, No Golgotha no Easter. No Good Friday, No Easter. No Exodus no Promised  Land. Robinson took on the struggle and prevailed.He blasted a path for other blacks and ultimately healing for America.It was Rabbi Heschel who understood the importance of the civil rights movement for religion and the churches. Their whole credibility was at stake.The black churches came through the fire.The  white churches never paid the price being too mired within a middle class straightjacket.

Jackie Robinson died young (of diabetes) at age 52 but his courage and incandescent talent paved the way for an end to Jim Crow.He played only 10 years but his witness gained him immediate entrance into baseball’s Hall of Fame. His number has been retired by major league baseball for his remarkable pioneering life.


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