ON APRIL 15, 1947, more than 26,000 fans, black and white, packed Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to watch a 28-year-old rookie go hitless in the Dodgers' 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves.
It didn't matter. Just the sight of a black man on a major league diamond signaled that baseball had shed 75 years of hypocrisy and finally deserved the title "national pastime." Jackie Robinson not only restored black faith in the American dream, but provided major league baseball with a new standard of heroism.
And his contribution went far beyond baseball. In 1947, segregation was the foremost characteristic of U.S. race relations. For nearly a million black World War II vets, the contradiction of fighting fascism abroad while enduring segregation at home was insufferable.
Determined to secure full political and social equality, many blacks migrated to northern cities, where they found better jobs, better schooling and more freedom. Together with their white allies, they helped lay the foundations of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.
Jackie Robinson was their hero. He challenged the "gentleman's agreement" of the owners that prevented the entry of blacks into the game. Their racism was reinforced by the many white Southerners who played in the majors.
Robinson understood that he'd be forced to endure verbal and physical abuse. He also knew that if he retaliated, he'd jeopardize the process of integration.
He was, by nature, a combative individual, so he had to struggle to restrain himself in the face of unrelenting provocation.
Opposing pitchers threw at his head, infielders spit in his face on the base paths, he received death threats and endured racial slurs. In one of the lowest moments in baseball history, the Phillies humiliated Robinson by pointing their bats at him and making gunshot sounds.
The constant torment took its toll. His hair began to turn gray, he had chronic stomach trouble, and he found himself on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
"What a glorious cleansing thing it would be to grab one of those white SOBs and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist," Robinson wrote.
"Then I could walk away from baseball and never become a star. But my son could tell his son what his daddy could have been if he hadn't been too much of a man."
But Robinson did respond like a man. He let his hitting, fielding and base-stealing prove his point. By the end of the '47 season, his .297 batting average, 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases made him rookie of the year.
He played with great success for nine more years, leading the Dodgers to several pennants and a World Series championship in 1955. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
Today, baseball suffers an image problem because of the boorish behavior of its multimillionaire stars. They could use a lesson from Robinson.
Unlike the Dodger infielder, who restrained his temper in the face of bigotry, some of today's players have serious anger management problems.
Like Cincinnati relief pitcher Danny Graves, who in May 2005 flipped the hometown fans an obscene gesture for booing him after he gave up five runs in the ninth inning to the Indians. Or the Phillies' Brett Myers and Oriole Scott Erickson, accused of assaulting their wives. Or Ugueth Urbina, a relief pitcher with the Marlins, Tigers and Phillies who attacked five workers on his Venezuela estate with a machete and poured gasoline on them in an attempt to set them on fire.
If today's players don't respect themselves, they can at least respect the game. At 38, Robinson retired rather accept a trade to the Dodgers' archrival Giants. It was not only a matter of team loyalty, but personal integrity. He realized he could no longer perform at the same level he once did.
Today, baseball has Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Sammy Sosa, who shamelessly float from team to team, hanging on for one more big paycheck or to pad their stats. Or worse, Barry Bonds, a 41-year-old steroid-juiced pretender to a home run crown that fans will never accept.
Why do today's "superstars" act like overgrown teenagers? Probably because they define themselves by the success with which they play a game. They have little else except baseball.
Had Jackie Robinson done nothing with his life after 1947, he still would have been an extremely successful human being.
Instead, he continued to help define the civil-rights movement. An outspoken advocate of self-help, he urged blacks to become creators of businesses and providers of jobs. He also founded several black-run enterprises.
Baseball was only a vehicle for Robinson. Civil rights was the goal. In the process, he helped Americans to start to learn to respect each other regardless of skin color. I wish there were more athletes like him today. *