There was magic at Dodger Stadium on April 15, when the league held its annual Jackie Robinson Day celebration. The pregame ceremony was especially powerful, for this year represented the 72nd anniversary of Robinson’s debut and the 100th anniversary of his birth. Jackie’s widow, Rachel Robinson, who turns 97 in July, made the flight to Los Angeles to appear. Sharon and David Robinson, Jackie and Rachel’s two living children, stood by her side. Scholarship students from the Jackie Robinson Foundation lined the first- and third-base lines and gave testimonials on Jackie’s inspiration.
Baseball is a different game than it was during Jackie’s time; a cold, unsentimental business has become a celebratory one. But honoring Jackie’s legacy is a far more complicated, murky space. The tributes rolled in nationally, as they do every year, about Jackie’s fight for civil rights, about his uncompromising spirit, his relentless demand that institutions from the White House to baseball front offices do better, but they resembled platitudes. In his time, Robinson’s pressure essentially got him ostracized from baseball. In retirement, he had no relationship with the sport. They celebrate him now, but the business of professional sports still punishes athletes who follow in Jackie’s actual example, whether it’s Colin Kaepernick or Eric Reid, Chris Kluwe or even Dwight Howard. The day of ceremony betrayed a reality: You can celebrate Jackie, but don’t you dare act like him.
If there is a true historical catalyst for today’s celebration of Robinson, it lies in one of baseball’s most embarrassing moments. On April 6, 1987, Dodgers executive Al Campanis appeared on a Nightline program commemorating the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut and told a national television audience that the reason baseball did not have any black managers, general managers or owners in the game at the time was that “they may not have some of the necessities.” Campanis, who had been the Dodgers’ GM for close to two decades, resigned two days later, but now the secret was out, for he had officially revealed what black people passed over for jobs had already known: Front offices did not believe they were qualified and had no intention of hiring minority managers.
From 1973, the year after Robinson’s death, to 1986, the year before Campanis’ firing, there was exactly one black manager who took over a team on a full-time, non-interim basis and lasted a full season: Frank Robinson, who integrated the AL managerial ranks with Cleveland in 1975 and the NL’s with the Giants in 1981. But after Campanis told the world what the suits really thought about black people, Frank Robinson was hired by the Orioles a year later. A year after that, in 1989, the Blue Jays hired Cito Gaston, and the NFL, which hadn’t had a black head coach since 1921, saw the Raiders hire Art Shell. The Giants hired Dusty Baker in the winter of 1992, and the Rockies hired Don Baylor to be their inaugural manager that same year.
Call it shame, exposure or both, but the pressure Campanis’ racism placed on the industry produced more direct action in terms of hiring than the long-winded tributes to Jackie ever did. Even though their eyes should have told them everything they needed to know, it was easy for baseball executives at the time – as it was for mainstream whites during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s – to act as if society were moving at an organic, appropriate speed in terms of minority hiring. But Campanis gave voice to a conspiracy, a deliberate institutional thinking that, once voiced, couldn’t be massaged or spun or explained away. How could Peter Ueberroth or Bart Giamatti or Fay Vincent or Bud Selig now look Frank Robinson and Don Baylor and Henry Aaron in the eye and tell them the game was doing its best by them? It couldn’t. For all the words about Jackie Robinson, it was only after Campanis that new people got new business cards; within two years of Campanis, Bill White was suddenly qualified to be president of the NL.
There is immense value in keeping Robinson’s name alive in every ballpark, every year, as long as we remember what he truly stood for – for starters, we must recognize the role of pressure in enacting change. In this way, Robinson and Campanis, the two former teammates, remain linked. It was Robinson’s last wish to see a black face managing a big league team, and it was Campanis who may have been the most significant figure in making that happen.