Out of the entire range of human emotions to which we are prone, the one that’s always fascinated me is revenge. As all who secretly indulge in that guilty pleasure of LMN movies, of course, it’s front and center in so many plots. As to its dictionary definition, this one supplied by the Cambridge English Dictionary, it is “harm that you do to someone as a punishment for harm that the person has done to you.”
It’s interesting to note that the dictionary definition has no mention of an expiration date as to the payback for a transgression committed against you, and that surely was evident when it came to Jackie Robinson, whose signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers 70 years ago Tuesday should be commemorated by all Americans, no matter their ethnicity and no matter their interest in America’s oldest sport, a sport woven so deeply into the historical fabric of this country that it’s impossible to ignore.
Robinson’s contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers, the one he signed April 11, 1947, without question, is the single most important sports document ever produced, since it’s really the sporting equivalent of the Emancipation Proclamation. Just four days after Robinson inked that contract, on April 15, Jackie stepped across the foul line to take his position at first base in a game against the Boston Braves, thereby becoming the first man of color to play 20th-century Major League Baseball and, at the same time, stepping beyond the threshold of the door of equality.
No longer would it be a white man’s game at baseball’s highest level. Rather, no matter the pigmentation of one’s skin, if a ballplayer was good enough with a glove on one hand or a bat in both, there would be a place for him on the field.
So important was Robinson’s contributions to American history, none other than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., often referred to as the founder of the civil-rights movement, once told talk-show host Larry King, who’d introduced MLK as such, that the real founder of the movement was Robinson.
In recalling Robinson’s historic first year, there’s so much to admire, especially as it relates to the hatred of so many who resented his inclusion in what was previously a lily-white national pastime. Dodger President Branch Rickey told Robinson he had to resist seeking revenge when others’ prejudice manifested itself in both their words and actions. Rickey knew that Robinson’s restraint in striking back would make it easier for other African-Americans to follow him into the game. And, follow they did, from Don Newcombe to Roy Campanella to Henry Aaron to Willie Mays to Pumpsie Green to Elston Howard and beyond.
However, that’s not to say that Robinson never sought revenge in a sport known for its participants cherishing grudges the way a miser cherishes his gold.
However, with Robinson, the revenge was in the mode of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone, who weighed in on revenge in “The Godfather,” when he said, “Revenge is a dish that tastes best when it is cold.”
In a famous incident that Robison’s teammate Ralph Branca recalled years later, during a game Branca was pitching against the St. Louis Cardinals, a game in which he was working on a perfect game, Cardinal Enos Slaughter spiked Robinson at first base trying to beat out a ground ball for the first hit against Branca.
Branca, who died at 90 in November, told Boston Globe writer Peter Abraham that he would forego his shot at the perfect game and hit Slaughter with a pitch the next time he came up. Robinson deferred, simply telling Branca to keep pitching the way he had been.
Larry King, not only an iconic TV interviewer but also an inveterate baseball fan, especially of the Dodgers (he was in attendance at Robinson’s very first game), picks up the story from there.
King recalled to the outstanding USA Today baseball columnist Bob Nightingale that, years later, he had interviewed Slaughter, who remained adamant throughout his life that the spiking was an accident and called Robinson the absolute toughest opponent he ever faced, about both the play as well as its protracted post-script.
King said, “He [Slaughter] told me, ‘I stepped on his [Robinson’s] ankle at first base and got a little blood on his foot. He didn’t say a word. Two years later, I’m sliding into second base, Robinson put his knee down and knocked three of my teeth out.’
“Robinson just said, ‘I don’t forget.’”
So, as we begin yet another baseball season this month, the 148th if you’re counting, it’s appropriate to remember 70 years later, the real beginning of America’s civil-rights movement, the man who embodied that movement and that delicious dish served cold to Enos Slaughter once upon a time at what old-school baseball fans still call the keystone sack.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.