Today is the 94th birthday of Jackie Robinson. Like no other athlete in American History, Jackie Robinson made real and permanent changes in the minds of many Americans during a time when Black Americans were thought inferior and ineffectual.
Jackie’s legacy lives on in every Major League stadium, in Miller Park with the blue ’42’ and gold banner. But it means something much more than that, and it should mean more to the legacy of Milwaukee baseball.
When baseball moved to Milwaukee in 1953, signifying a very quiet way the beginning of modern baseball – steel stadiums, western expansion, and an emphasis on fan involvement. In a very Wisconsin way, the Milwaukee Braves were a progressive team.
The prevailing attitudes of the city it moved into, however, were not.
Milwaukee has always been an interesting case study in race relations. From its very founding, the communities that constitute the city proper have lived along sharply divided lines – sometimes with violence ensuing. African Americans were not wholly unwelcome in Milwaukee – in truth the black population in Milwaukee scarcely made a dent during that time period – but racial tensions certainly existed.
As it did elsewhere in America during the post-war years, baseball would take the lead in changing that. But change would be slow.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were considered by Milwaukee Braves fans to be the chief competition for their place atop the National League – and chief among the villains from the Borough was Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson played hard for the whole game, every game. He had a rough temper and hard-nosed attitude that came out more regularly in the end of his career – a consequence of years of racially-motivated threats and on-field intimidation tactics. Many of the Milwaukee Braves players, namely head instigator Lew Burdette, used racial taunts and epithets to try and rattle the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
In 1954, thanks mainly to Jackie’s courageous step, the Milwaukee Braves desegregated with their own polarizing star – Hank Aaron.
Aaron is an Alabama native, and played his whole career with an understated brilliance that lent strength to his struggle. He was, in many ways, Robinson’s foil. Where Robinson was considered outspoken, brash, and even argumentative for much of his career; Hammerin’ Hank exuded a slow, deliberate and even meditative approach.
Where Robinson was the pinnacle of hard driving hustle, Aaron was effortlessness personified.
Where Robinson’s run-ins with bigots and ignorance were often public battles, Aaron’s struggle was more private – but no less important or difficult.
The two played each other several times, when Hank’s star was rising and
Robinson’s career dwindling. There was a game played between the Dodgers and Braves where Aaron was up to bat and Robinson as playing third. The Dodgers were well aware of the power in Aaron’s bat and worked tirelessly to confound him. Aaron, in his way, tried to bite back. During this particular game the Dodgers continued to play him deep – trying to work against their strategy, Aaron faked a bunt twice. Robinson didn’t budge.
When Aaron asked him after the game why he didn’t flinch, Robinson responded simply, “We’ll give you first base anytime you want.”
The pair had a deeply respectful relationship, despite the high tensions between the two teams. They fought hard on the field, never yielding to each other or anyone else. If their attitude had something to do with it, certainly the color of their skin had more.
Very little is discussed about the racial attitudes of the Milwaukee Braves team as a whole, but one can assume Aaron – like Robinson – had his fair share of obstacles with his teammates.
But every year, for both Robinson and Aaron, it got a little bit easier. Because for both of those pioneers, it was the way they attacked the game that helped them attack the deeper social issues surrounding baseball and America. They proved unequivocally that African Americans could play on the same level with White players. They forced fans, owners, and players alike to concede that America’s Pastime does indeed belong to all of America.
The fight never ended for Aaron, as he approached that seemingly insurmountable number 715, he faced the same threats and taunts as he did nearly twenty years ago.
Likewise, Jackie Robinson’s fight never ended. He kept moving through the history of baseball, an entire generation of young African Americans chugging along behind him on his fight to equality. His work on the field and his unflinching fight off it helped to create opportunities for men like Hank Aaron, and the hundreds of Black and Latin players that followed them.
We can’t afford to forget days like today. We can’t afford to forget what he had to go through, and the way he went through it. We can’t forget the way baseball dragged its feet and that it took more than just Jackie to get through the door.
It took a group of people fighting against convention, and it took the trust and bond between Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey to see it through.
It’s still a tough fight for equality in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, and in America. But thanks to men like Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron and countless others, it does get easier.
Happy Birthday Jackie Robinson. You’ve left a legacy many baseball fans can be proud of. The best gift we can give is to continue to fight in your spirit.