Jackie Robinson is a testament to the power of competition—his competitive spirit brought together a whole world of sports.
In Late Latin it means “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together”. In classical Latin it means “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified”
“Competere” is where we get the basis for the word “competition”. Jackie Robinson further reinvented this word and the significance of its meaning in the 20th century.
From this man, every athlete can and should learn how to compete on and off the field of play.
“Jackie Robinson—a Hall of Fame baseball player…but also an extraordinary political powerhouse and a civil rights leader in his own right, who personified the “first class citizenship” that he demanded for all Americans, and who to the day of his death fiercely competed against anyone who would stand in his way.”
–From the book, First Class Citizenship edited by Michael G. Long
Early in his life, young Jackie Robinson soon recognized what set him apart from his peers was the spirit of competition he possessed inside him. “Besides his clear physical talent, another attribute he would carry throughout his life was evident from the beginning: a potent competitive streak” One of his childhood acquaintances remembers, “Jackie wasn’t a likable person…because his whole thing was just win, win, win, and beat everybody” (6, Schultz).
What brought the big idea of competition together for Jackie was the field of sports.
“Sports were the big breach in the wall of segregation about me.”
He saw sports as an opportunity to provide an inclusive, open boundary in a world that was strictly divided into black and white terms. This continued throughout his life and into his sports career.
Athlete & Activist
So passionate was he about the power of sports; when he made it to his trailblazing apex in the major leagues, he eloquently identified why sports will always be the great equalizer in society. In a letter dated July 23, 1956 to William Keefe (the sports editor for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans who had written that Robinson’s behavior was the catalyst for a new Louisiana law that criminalized interracial sports), he bluntly stated:
“We ask for nothing special. We ask only that we be permitted to live as you live, and as our nation’s constitution provides. We ask only, in sports, that we be permitted to compete on an even basis and, if we are not worthy, then the competition shall, per se, eliminate us. Certainly you, and the people of Louisiana, should be capable of facing such competition” (16, Long).
His biggest test was winning the hearts and minds of a segregated civilization. The challenge was daunting, but he was the one man up for it. All he needed was a game and guidelines, and he was ready to go.
Bye Bye Bigotry
What Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson proved in the sports world was that there is an answer to blatant bigotry: Performance.
“…Performance would be the answer to anyone’s prejudice”
“The American sports fan…is fundamentally the same. Above everything else, he admires and respects athletic prowess, guts and good sportsmanship. And he demands a fair chance and fair play” (133, Falkner).
Perhaps the greatest impact of his performance power can be seen in the single season when he played in the Junior World Series for the Montreal Royals, the season right before he began with the Dodgers.
The baseball diamond became the place where the tide started to turn on the toleration of bigotry.
“At the Series opener in Louisville…from the moment he set foot on the field, he was jeered and taunted…But when the team got back to Montreal, the script changed. Canadian fans, knowing the insults and threats endured by Robinson, turned their wrath on the entire Louisville team. It was impossible for a Louisville player to step to the plate without receiving the sort of welcome that might have reminded him of what Robinson had had to take in the opening games of the series” (141-142, Falkner).
Only sports can produce a glorious narrative such as this.
Winning over the World
Before signing him to a Major League deal, Branch Rickey gave him the impossible task of winning over the world.
“I want you to win the friendship of people everywhere. You must be personable, you must smile, and even if they are worrying you to death, make the public think you don’t mind” (70, Schultz).
He was described as an “opportunist” when it came to the way he played on the field.
“His very ‘presence’ lit a ‘fire under his own team’…sports scribe John Crosby saw Robinson as ‘the greatest opportunist on any kind of playing field, seeing openings before they opened, pulling off plays lesser players can’t even imagine. This unpredictable opportunism, which—in the words of historian Jules Tygiel—‘revolutionized major league baseball’ after his arrival, may have been surprising to his white competitors..,but it had long been the norm in the Negro Leagues he had now left behind” (76, Schultz).
This special opportunity granted to him was one that he took to new heights in order to transform America’s pastime. The fact that he brought the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues only further integrated the sport and brought power to his message on the field.
Winning over his teammates proved to be a tougher challenge than winning over his critics, but the way he was able to do it became the beauty of his legacy as a baseball player.
One of those teammates was Dixie Walker. “Southerner Dixie Walker, said to have led the anti-Robinson petition in training camp, now sung his black teammates’ praises: ‘No other ballplayer on this club, with the possible exception of [catcher] Bruce Edwards has done more to put the Dodgers up in the race than Robinson has’” (80, Schultz).
Miraculously, Robinson’s competitive poise allowed for an atmosphere that was both fair and honest.
#1 in American Hearts
Pretty soon, he was winning over the hearts and minds of every American, black and white alike.
“By late 1947, Americans named the black infielder the astonishing second most popular man in the country. He was widely celebrated for his courage, humility, sportsmanship, and for being a fine family man” (80, Schultz).
“From the moment he emerged from the first-base dugout at Ebbets Field, he knew that every at bat, every hit, every stolen base mattered more than games…In this strange moment it seemed that history could be shaped to the contours of a baseball field. But that only amplified to the point of relentlessness Robinson’s determination to go all out, to make winning the final proof of the experiment” (162, Falkner).
His driving spirit of competition led to the greatest revolution in our culture.
Even during the glum 1940s, “President Harry Truman’s own civil rights committee…issued a largely pessimistic report and called for a number of reforms in 1947. One of the events in which it found reason for optimism was the integration of baseball” (80, Schultz).
Jackie Robinson’s competitive drive is what erased the boundaries that used to hold our country’s old way of thinking hostage. After Robinson integrated baseball there was a slight feeling that Americans were allowed to compete freely—and more important—fairly.
“But Robinson’s impact scattered into millions of powerful individual stories as well that never made headlines. Roger Williams…remembers him ‘as important to me and other blacks, especially young blacks, as a parent would have been, I think. Because he brought pride and the certain knowledge that on a fair playing field, when there were rules and whites could not cheat and lie and steal, not only were they not supermen but we could beat ‘em…And this man, in a very personal sense, became a permanent part of my spirit and the spirit of a generation of black kids” (80, Schultz).
His impact was fascinatingly pervasive in even the most unexpected places. For example, this incredible story of how he inadvertently brought the entire city of Chicago together, if only for a short while:
“Jackie not only integrated Wrigley Field, but briefly the city’s population as well…’Few blacks were seen in downtown Chicago, much less up on the white North side at a Cub game. That day they came by the thousands’…They obviously left an impression on white Chicagoans. ‘They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes’, he remembers. ‘They had on church clothes’” (82, Schultz).
Instances like this will forever remain in America’s continued success story of overcoming negative attitudes and racism.
Obstacles with Opposition
“The difficult chemistry of succeeding as a black ballplayer had always been playing aggressively enough on the diamond to advance the scoreboard without offending white sensibilities…One journalist recalled one official ejecting Robinson for merely wincing at second base at a closely called pitch” (102, Schultz).
The power that he possessed was clearly in the spirit of his competitive nature. That spirit was necessary to disrupt the nature of American life in the middle of the 20th century. “Robinson not only ‘beat you…he’d frustrate you. He made teams angry’”(102, Schultz).
There are consequences to trying to win over the hearts of the world, but Robinson proved it’s worth it; because even when you fall short you’ve still won the fight.
One Step Ahead
Jackie Robinson shifted the narrative with his skills. The narrative of where he was leading the American people was the only one that mattered to him.
“Bigotry, like competition, enters new and different phases…But the nature of the competition then was such that it was possible, for a time, to believe that something so intractable as the American Dilemma could resolve itself within the perfectly lined dimensions of a baseball field.”
-From the book Great Time Coming, by David Falkner
Competition Opens Doors
“Robinson’s pact with Rickey was to play ball. His pact with himself was to prove beyond any measure that he could not only play with white men, he could play so well that the doors would have to open for others.”
“…[T]o integrate, he knew that he would always have to be one step ahead” (170, Falkner).
With any competition, there is always opposition. For Jackie Robinson, that opposition came in many forms.
“Robinson won fans over because he could rouse them, but he also won over his team, his league—and the nation—not only by being a lion by having to be a lamb” (172, Falkner).
Opponents slowly began to acknowledge and respect his courage.
Even amidst all the angst of an entire world against him, Jackie prevailed through his untouchable spirit of competition. “Robinson, despite nagging injuries, contributed significantly to a 1956 late stretch by Brooklyn to win the National League on the final day of that season. A New York sportswriter called Jackie ‘still the most dangerous individual competitor in the game” (107, Schultz).
He also won over fans and followers with the way he competed, earning respect and even laughter from spectators.
“Here’s something else Jackie learned…he’d make a little fake dash like he was gonna try to get back to second so he’d make the guy throw to second to get him. The minute he did that, he’d just walk on into third—and everybody’d be laughing” (91, Falkner). Sports became the universal language that the audience could all understand.
Civility in Competition
Dodgers teammate Pee Wee Reese best showcased the power of competition and how teamwork and camaraderie can bridge divides in the sports world. There were two qualities about Reese that made his role in Jackie’s life so special: “The first was his drive to win, no less fierce because it was cloaked in civility. A second theme was that civility itself.”
“[Reese] was Jackie Robinson’s friend…Anyone who resented Robinson for his color or—more common—for the combination of color and aggressiveness found himself contending not only with Jack, but with the captain. Aware, but unself-conscious, Reese and Robinson came to personify integration” (210, Falkner).
Important to note was how Jackie Robinson was a classy competitor, even following his most epic defeat.
“When both teams had finally threaded their way through…Robinson walked over from the Dodgers clubhouse to the Giants dressing room to offer congratulations. He was the only Dodger to do so” (223, Falkner).
“All Robinson’s training, his pride, his preparation, his past accomplishments, came from and centered on athletic stardom. The vigor and competitiveness of sport drove his sense of everyday relations and his sense of fair play. His passion for social justice came as much from a desire to win as from a commitment to right thinking” (243, Falkner).
His competitive nature was the greatest tool he used for transformation, even as he ended his baseball career and entered the world as a civil rights spokesman.
When it came to his political career, Robinson, competitive in nature, just wanted to be won over—and the team he loyally competed for was the African-American race.
As an American citizen, he was the exemplary teammate because he had one of the best qualities that all noble teammates have: he was an encourager. He sent a letter of encouragement to Democrat Robert Kennedy, a man who he could have considered a rival at that time.
He also encouraged Republican Richard Nixon, when the former President was down about losing the 1960 election. In a letter dated November 12, 1962 he wrote:
“Do not let your critics cause you to give up your career…each of us came into this world for a purpose. I believe that yours is service to our country” (158, Long).
Nixon would later win the presidency in 1968.
Ultimately, what he wanted to win was the fight for civil rights, and he kept that spirit of competition and the drive that made him impossible to defeat on the field with him.
Even when his furor and disappointment was directed at his own political party, he found a way to keep competition as the driving force of his philosophy. After Barry Goldwater’s defeat in the presidential race, Robinson stated, “As for the Republican Party, it should know by now that racism can no longer win elections in America” (204, Long).
As a retired professional athlete, what I love and admire most about Jackie Robinson is here’s a man who said, “You know what? I don’t belong to myself. I belong to something greater than myself, and I’m okay with that.” To me, that is his greatest sacrifice to not only the game he played or to the African-American race he fervently served, but to humankind.
He is special in the sense that we can all relate to his will to win, which is what makes his impact so global.
Why we cannot lose
We cannot lose. We cannot lose our understanding of who this man was, is and will continue to be in our history. We cannot lose our sense of what Jackie Robinson means to the world. We must overcome and win in the way this one sports leader showed us.
It is up to all of us to now adopt the winning spirit of this man. We are his legacy. As athletes, we keep the legacy of this man alive because he gave his life for us. It is now time for us to bear the responsibility of the burdens he carried for half a century;
It is time to compete like it’s cost us something.
Four time All-American, WNBA Champion, Edutainer and Coach