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Date TimeJanuary 31, 2019
VoiceThe first black woman in the baseball Hall of Fame recalls 42’s influence on her as a child.
Jackie Robinson Showed Me How to Fight On, Not Fight Back
As an African-American woman who has written about baseball for decades, the question I am most asked about my career choice is: “Why?”
The answer is really as succinct as the question: Jackie Robinson.
He was the man who, born 100 years ago, successfully took on the challenge of transforming baseball and, by extension, the entire country by becoming the first African-American to play in the modern era. By stepping onto a major league diamond as a Brooklyn Dodger 72 years ago, he allowed a sport that thought of itself as the national pastime to finally be just that.
What Robinson did, what he stood for, what he conveyed not only to black America, but to all of America, has resonated with me for as long as I can remember, and nothing else played as big a role in fueling my desire to be a writer, a recorder of history, a storyteller.
I did not personally feel the tectonic shift that took place on April 15, 1947, when Robinson made his Dodgers debut. Alas, I did not see Robinson’s first game, nor even his last, a decade later. I came of age years after he played his final game for Brooklyn.
But I wish I could say, with a straight face, that I actually heard Robinson’s name while still in the womb. He was, in fact, still on the Dodgers then. And yes, my mother was that big a fan of Robinson and the Dodgers and surely was urging him on out loud while she was pregnant with me. Indeed, tales of the lengths to which she and other family members went in order to listen to Dodgers games on the radio were among my favorite bedtime stories as a child.
Back then, I sensed the reverence that was still reserved for Robinson in my household, even though he had by then retired. After all, what African-Americans who were adults in the middle of the last century, as my mother and father were, could resist being drawn to him? In an era of ongoing repression, African-Americans wanted heroes of their own. So, as a child, you would hear of the exploits of Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson. And Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson Showed Me How to Fight On, Not Fight Back
It did help that, by the time I reached third grade, I had something more than an oral history to reference when it came to worshiping him. And that’s because the nuns at St. James Elementary School in Elkins Park, Pa., decided one day to break the rote and routine of our structured school life and spirit all of us to a first-floor sanctuary in the school. They did so in order to show us a film, a grainy, 76-minute biopic entitled “The Jackie Robinson Story.”
The movie was pure Hollywood, and never destined to be an epic. Still, for this one child, the black-and-white rendering brought color and depth to the Robinson story. And playing opposite the great Ruby Dee (who portrayed Rachel Robinson in the movie) was none other than Jackie Robinson, portraying himself.
All these years later, I can still remember how intensely I watched Robinson on the screen, giving life to his own story. There, in the sanctuary, I could see the man as well as the athlete, could hear his voice, could sense that sprinkled in among all the Tinsel Town touches were more than a few hints of truth.
When Jackie Robinson spoke in the movie, it was as if he were speaking to me. And that mattered. It was the early 1960s and as the lone African-American child sitting in the pews that afternoon, and in my classroom every single day, I didn’t often see anyone on the big screen or on television who looked like Mom and Dad, or my relatives. In this one modest movie, Dee and Robinson came as close to mirroring us as anything I’d ever seen before.
It would, of course, take years for me to fully realize what Hollywood dared not show at the time. It would take years of growth to realize that my worst day could never possibly compare to the things Jackie Robinson went through.
And yet, by Jackie Robinson entering my life the way he did, by way of my mother’s tales and that memorable day watching him in a movie bearing his name, I began to understand what the battle for civil rights — one that my own parents and grandparents were fighting valiantly — was all about.
In the decades that followed, as I pursued the career I had chosen, I was able to get to know Rachel Robinson, an outright national treasure who was and is as integral to the legend of No. 42 as Jackie himself. As well, I got to meet their daughter, Sharon, who, with her philanthropic efforts, has made her own valuable impact in keeping the Jackie Robinson story alive.
It is, at heart, the story of the man who, at his best and bravest, showed us all how to be strong enough not to fight back but rather to fight on and on and on, even now on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And I’m proud, in my own small way, to have helped tell it.

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