McKenna: Who Is Jackie Robinson? Many don't know

Kate McKenna
4/19/2013 1:38:27 PM
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42 opinions.

42 answers.

42 clips all strung together, edited into a short video montage. That's what I was after and I felt defeated. I wasn't getting what I wanted.

It seems strange opening a column about Jackie Robinson with the word defeated. It's like the name and the word don't belong in such close proximity. They're counter to one another.

On second thought, though, I suppose I wasn't defeated. Defeated's not the right word. I was diverted.

The weekend before Jackie Robinson Day, I set out with a camera to gather opinions about the legendary baseball player. 42 answers to the question "Who is Jackie Robinson?" was what I was after, edited together to create a rapid sequence of faces and beliefs. "Baseball player," I expected. "Ground breaker," "Legend," "Hero," "Game Changer," "Revolutionary," and hopefully, mixed in there, some less obvious, more creative descriptors I hadn't predicted.
I figured a movie theatre in downtown Toronto within walking distance of the Rogers Centre would be a good place to start, especially since '42' - the biopic about Robinson - was playing.

After spending a few hours speaking to people milling about in the concourse, it became clear I wasn't getting what I was looking for. I was, however, getting something else valuable. A new understanding of what is (and isn't) common knowledge.

Though most everyone over the age of about 25 could explain who Robinson was, often with some degree of detail, more than a few people under the age of 25 couldn't comment on Robinson because they didn't know who he was.

It was then that I realized I'd made an assumption that was, perhaps, unfair. The name Jackie Robinson isn't necessary universally recognized by a particular, younger generation of Canadians, as I assumed it would be.

Was that lack of awareness ignorance or, in some strange way, progression? I wasn't sure.

Anthony Wilson-Smith, President of the Historica - Dominican Institute, an organization dedicated to Canadian history, says it's a bit of both. "It's a mixed blessing. Clearly it's disappointing on one level that people don't know this tremendous ground breaker and all the things he went through.

On another - in a funny way it's a testimony to him and everyone who's come after him in bringing racial equality to sports," he said.  "If you say to a young person 'Do you not know who this person was who broke the white only monopoly of sports?' part of that reaction is probably 'What are you nuts?' ...It's a hard thing [for them] to grasp today because Canada is such a different place."

Wilson-Smith points out, though, that the change in social landscape doesn't mean Robinson's accomplishments should go unrecognized.

"He was the lead figure in bringing fundamental change to a popular institution, meaning professional baseball, that had an enormous following and was segregated and once you start to knock down barriers in one area, they get knocked down in another," he said. "People like Jackie Robinson were the ones who started the move to make it a different place so they were the heroes, the warriors on the front steps."

Robinson was always the hero in the stories Russell Martin grew up listening to.

The Pittsburgh Pirates catcher didn't live through the same racism-filled era that Jackie Robinson did, but grew up revering him nonetheless thanks largely to his Dad, a gifted storyteller.  Russll Sr. loved Robinson so much so that when he was a child, he would go so far as to tell kids in the park that he was Robinson's son, "proving" it by running the bases at lightning speed.

When he became a father, Martin Sr. filled his own son's summer nights in Montreal with stories of Robinson's athleticism, of his will and determination, intentionally creating a hero figure for his baseball-loving child.

"My Dad's a good storyteller so I'd get inspired by the stories that he would tell me [about Jackie Robinson]. I thought that was pretty cool to see my Dad get amped up about telling me a story about somebody that he was really passionate about," Martin Jr. said. "It wasn't until later that I realized what exactly Jackie went through and everything that he accomplished."

The younger Martin admits that Robinson's struggles put his own in perspective.

"I get heckled on the field and it's nothing compared to what he went through," he said. "For me that's what Jackie represents… the determination, the warrior mentality to battle through so much nonsense and still be able to go out and compete at a high level."

When I spoke to the Pirates catcher, he was sitting in his team's clubhouse surrounded by #42 jerseys hanging in each of his teammates' lockers. It was Jackie Robinson Day, when players league-wide wear Robinson's jersey out of respect, honour and commemoration. In just a few hours he would get a rare chance – to play the game he loves, wearing his hero's number on his back.

Words didn't come easily.

"It kind of just makes me...I don't brings up some type of emotion of..." and he paused. "I can't wait to play tonight. I can't wait to go out there and compete to the best of my ability and really go out there and play hard and play with passion and have fun. Not that I don't do that every night but wearing the 42 is definitely going to be special."

Ultimately Martin believes knowing what that 42 represents is critical.

"Anybody who's a fan of baseball [and anyone else] needs to know his story, no matter where you're from," he said. "He impacted the sport in a tremendous way."

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