Gleaming white against the black night sky just beyond the outfield fence, the Capitol dome looms as a reminder that Washington’s new ballpark is not just spectacular, but also a national monument of sorts.
Glowing red against the gray-white stone, just over the ballpark entrance, the neon-bright “Nationals Park,” however, is unfortunately a sign of our times. It is just a placeholder. It is a for-sale thing, destined to be replaced by an orange juice or a bank or a beer or a pet food or a phone company. Any corporate wallet willing to pay X-million dollars a year to the Washington baseball company. Just as they’ve done at most new stadiums.
The name of Washington’s very fan-friendly, taxpayer-funded ballpark is for sale, but not necessarily to the highest bidder, Nationals President Stan Kasten has said. The team wants a corporate benefactor who cares about doing the right thing.
Well, here’s a different sort of right-thing name-game suggestion. Name Washington’s ballpark after a baseball player who performed heroically in Washington — and whose name may be as important to us now as he was in his prime.
Name it: Jackie Robinson Park.
It’s a national idea that should be championed by all who care. Major League Baseball must care — because here is a statistic that Robinson would find hard to believe: Only 8.4 percent of today’s major league players are American blacks — compared with 27 percent who were African-Americans in 1975, according to a 2006 study by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Today, 29.4 percent of major leaguers are Hispanics.
Quibblers in our midst may shout that Robinson never played baseball in Washington. But they forget the day Robinson performed heroically, just 12 blocks up the road.
On July 18, 1949, Robinson testified before a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession that pro-Soviet Communists had infiltrated civil rights organizations. The FBI had already amassed an extensive Jackie Robinson file. Actually it was two files in one.
The first part was filled with hate messages and assassination threats, a painful part of Robinson’s life since he donned a Brooklyn Dodger in 1947 becoming MLB’s first black player, ending a shameful history of the sport that called itself our national pastime. The second part of his FBI file was its own sick chronicle of our time — a quarter century of documents recording with suspicion every time Robinson spoke for civil rights. Such as the day he called for fair housing — selling houses without discrimination — in the Long Island suburb of Levittown, N.Y.
Midway through the 1949 season in which he would be named baseball’s most valuable player — Robinson was summoned before the infamous House committee that saw red in every black and white controversy. As sharp of mind as he was athletic in body, Robinson chose to be no artful dodger that day — and spoke tough truths to politicians seeking to link all civil rights groups with communists.
“The fact that it is a communist who denounces injustice in the courts, police brutality, and lynching when it happens doesn’t change the truth of his charges,” Robinson testified. “Just because communists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes, a lot of people try to pretend that the whole issue is a creation of communist imagination. But they are not fooling anyone with this kind of pretense, and talk about communists stirring up Negroes to protest only makes present misunderstanding worse than ever. Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they’ll stay stirred up long after the Party has disappeared — unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well.”
Major league baseball frets about its sharp decline among American blacks that instead chose basketball or football, even though there are far more opportunities for an athlete to play minor or major league baseball than in the NBA or NFL. Baseball has mounted small efforts to promote its sport in inner cities.
But clear-thinking leaders worry about inner city crime and youths in need of role models. Now this: Let’s make Washington’s new park a performance monument to the cause, its heroes and role models. Include a hall of history showing the accomplishments of Robinson and those who came after him.
And let a prime exhibit at Jackie Robinson Park be pages from the FBI’s Jackie Robinson file — a reminder of a still-unfinished cause that remains our national pastime.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)