Too Long Coming

On March 2, at 2 p.m. in the U.S. Capitol, official Washington will do something right. Also, long overdue.

It will award one of America’s highest honors – the Congressional Gold Medal, the first bestowed upon George Washington – to another of our deceased statesmen, a man who was, in a real sense, another of our founding fathers. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a leader by deed and daunt, led America into an era when we could begin to see ourselves as a nation in which we all are created equal.

Wordlessly on the fields of our dreams, at first, and vocally throughout society later, he became the visible example of all that he could be. In doing so, he empowered all of us to be what we had to be, if America was ever going to be a nation of genuinely united states. Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to be allowed to play major-league baseball, breaking the racial barrier in 1947, when he donned the Brooklyn Dodger flannels bearing his now-famous number 42 and took the field. The older among us remember the thrills he brought to our childhood. The others remember only by reading books or seeing those old black-and-white baseball films.

But all in the U.S. Capitol on March 2 can understand what Jackie Robinson meant to his nation by recalling that the capital city they are in was itself segregated _ as black-and-white as those old newsreels _ when Robinson played his first big-league game. And in Southern states, laws decreed that Jackie wasn’t free to eat or room with his teammates.

Words, black on white, paint a more vivid picture than those black-and-white films of what Robinson’s life was like in breaking baseball’s racial barrier. In the declassified files the FBI kept on Robinson, there are pages of crudely written death threats: “We are to kill Brooklyns Jackie Robinson from nearby window with rifle. We are going to shoot and kill negro Jackie Robinson at Crosley Field (Cincinnati).” Also, pages of FBI witch-hunting, as J. Edgar Hoover operated on the presumption that anti-segregation was linked to pro-communism and thus subversive. One memo informed that Robinson was on the NAACP board and was the New York chairman of United Negro and Allied Veterans of America _ calling it a “communist front” seeking “to provoke racial friction.”

But you can fill in the rest of the picture by reading a warm little book, just off the McGraw-Hill presses, “What I Learned from Jackie Robinson,” by Carl Erskine, the Dodger star who played with Robinson and pitched two no-hitters.

Erskine writes of Robinson’s baseball feats, civil-rights leadership and the team’s reaction to those death threats. In 1949, the Dodgers arrived for a spring exhibition at Atlanta’s then-minor-league stadium to find the Ku Klux Klan picketing. In the clubhouse before the game, the manager read a threat addressed to the team: “Take the field and you’re going to be shot!” The players sat in stunned silence _ until outfielder Gene Hermanski broke it with a joke that signaled a serious team unity: “Why don’t we all wear number 42? Then the nut won’t know who to shoot at?” Erskine writes: “Robinson thought that was the topper of them all.”

The book’s most important and touching words are about Robinson’s impact, by counsel and example, on Erskine and his wife, Betty, after their fourth child, Jimmy, was born with Down syndrome. They rejected doctors’ suggestions that their son be institutionalized and raised him at home. “Jackie and Jimmy, because of tradition, superstition, ignorance, fear, and arrogance, felt the bitterness of rejection,” Erskine writes. Also: “Jackie helped me to encourage other parents whose children had birth defects or physical disabilities or diseases. Jackie had his Rookie of the Year and his Hall of Fame plaque, and my Jimmy went on to earn gold medal after gold medal in the Special Olympics. I wish Jackie had lived to see those days because Jackie had a lot to do with Jim’s success.”

Hopefully, on March 2, Jimmy Erskine, 44, who works at an Applebee’s Restaurant in Anderson, Ind., can enjoy the moment when his dad’s famous teammate finally is awarded his own very special gold medal. It was earned in so many ways, so long ago.

(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)