Vinson: '42" a grand slam

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A friend and I went to the Cowan Oldham Theater, here in McMinnville, to watch the much-talked about movie, 42, which is based on Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American to play baseball in the major leagues. In the movie 42, Harrison Ford portrays Branch Rickey, and newcomer Chadwick Boseman plays Jackie Robinson.

Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson was born on Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919, the youngest of five children. An all-around sports prodigy in high school, Robinson would go on to star in baseball, basketball, football, and track & field at Pasadena Junior College (Pasadena, California), before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles/UCLA, becoming the first negro athlete to letter in the four aforementioned sports at UCLA.

To give you an idea of Jackie Robinson's raw athletic ability, he won the 1940 NCAA Men's Outdoor Track & Field Championship in the long jump ("broad jump"), jumping 24 ft 10 1?4 inches /7.58 meters. The world record in the long jump, at that time, was held by yet another African-American athlete, Jesse Owens. Owens' record in the long jump was 26 ft 8 1?4 inches/ 8.13 meters, a world record that would last 25 years. Had Robinson forgone participation in the other sports, and concentrated solely on the long jump, he very well might have approached the world record.

Though blacks were already playing in the professional football league, Major League Baseball was still segregated. And a reason for this segregation could be that major league baseball/MLB, as of 1947, was "America's Favorite Pastime," a little closer to the heart, more patriotic, I suppose . . . especially for those of the "Jim Crow" mindset.

Also, the reason I don't group the National Basketball Association/NBA in the same class as professional baseball and football is that, as of 1947, professional basketball had not really caught on with the collective American public, versus the highly-popular sport it is today.

After leaving UCLA and serving in the U.S. Army, Jackie Robinson played for years in the old "Negro Baseball League." It was a well known fact there was talent abound in the Negro Baseball League. Black baseball greats such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson caused envy and whispery gossip in many white locker rooms.

Enter Branch Rickey, who, as of 1947, was both the president and the general manager of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers . . .

A gruff, cigar-chomping, white man, Rickey, also, was a "visionary," realizing it was only a matter of time before blacks began playing in Major League Baseball. Utilizing canny, somewhat covert strategy, Rickey signed Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was a brave move on Rickey's part, because Robinson was known to lash out against racism, and it was guaranteed that Robinson would face harsh racism on a daily basis. My favorite lines in the movie 42 are: Robinson asks Rickey, "Are you looking for a negro who is afraid to fight back back?" Cigar in mouth, Rickey responds with, "I need a negro player with guts enough not to fight back!"

Indeed, on April 15, 1947, Robinson, starting on first base, made his major league debut for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field before a crowd of over 25,000 spectators, including approximately 15,000 black patrons. However, he would truly make his mark as a second baseman.

Over the course of ten seasons, Jackie Robinson was MLB Rookie of the Year in 1947, first year for the award, and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, the first black to do so. Too, he played in six World Series and contributed to the Dodgers' 1955 World Championship team. He was selected for six consecutive All-Star Games, 1949 to 1954.

The pinnacle came in 1962, when Robinson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1997, Major League Baseball "universally" retired his uniform number, 42, across all major league teams.

Without question, 42 hit a "grand slam" for me, both in terms of sports history and civil rights history.

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Mike Vinson
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