Like any Friday night during the spring and summer months, there will be baseball played tonight. And fans of the Milwaukee Brewers and their minor league affiliates will get to cheer on rising young stars such as Victor Roache, Tyrone Taylor, Chris McFarland, Johnny Davis and Monte Harrison as they take to the diamond for their respective teams.
As we sit here in 2016, it seems unfathomable, to think about the fact that less than 70 years ago, that would have never been possible. But on April 15th, 1947, Jackie Robinson changed all that, when he made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier and opening the door for so many talented baseball players to follow.
It wasn’t easy for Robinson, who endured countless taunts, violent attacks and even death threats, when all he wanted to do was play the game of baseball. But he fought his way through when a lesser man would have caved, and helped to pave the way for all of those that would follow him.
“Often I would come home tired, discouraged, wondering if I could go on enduring the verbal abuse and even the physical provocations and continue to ‘turn the other cheek'” wrote Robinson in his 1972 autobiography “I Never Had It Made”. But he did continue to turn the other cheek, letting his game prove that he belonged in the big leagues among the sport’s best players. Robinson hit .297 with 12 home runs and 29 stolen bases during his first season, en route to being named the National League’s Rookie of the Year. He posted similar numbers in his second season, and was selected to the NL’s All-Star team in six straight seasons from 1949-1954, taking home league Most Valuable Player honors in 1949 after batting .342 with 38 doubles, 12 triples, 16 home runs and a league leading 37 stolen bases.
Robinson’s ten year Major League career came to a close in 1956 and he passed away 16 years later in 1972, but his legacy still lives on today. Due to his huge contributions, both on and off the field, it’s no surprise that many young African-American baseball players look up to the legendary Robinson as a player who they would like to pattern themselves after, as they carry on his legacy, playing the game that they too love.
“Jackie Robinson is someone you would want to model yourself after in any situation” said Biloxi Shuckers second baseman Chris McFarland. “He was in the midst of a lot of tension, yet somehow kept his cool and went about handling his business and playing under an immense amount of pressure. Not just baseball-wise, but in any aspect in life, to have his personality traits and qualities would make the world a better place.”
For the third straight season, Milwaukee’s farmhands with the Brevard County Manatees in the Florida State League will have the chance to honor Robinson, when they play in the annual Jackie Robinson Celebration Game held at Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. They’ll take on the St. Lucie Mets in a game that carries special significance for those lucky enough to experience it.
“Jackie Robinson is the only reason that I get to play today,” Manatees outfielder Johnny Davis told Florida Today prior to last year’s contest and he’ll once again get that opportunity to play on Friday evening for Brevard County.
McFarland was able to participate in the game last season as a member of the Manatees, and looks back with fondness on the experience. “Last year, getting to play in the Jackie Robinson game was an honor” added McFarland. “Another story to add to the memories of my professional baseball experiences. Just to think, if I wasn’t allowed to play the game of baseball because of race, (it) would be heartbreaking. It really is the only sport I loved as I was growing up. Whenever you get asked the question ‘Who is a person you would like to meet that had passed away already?’ Jackie Robinson for sure is in my top three.”
Robinson’s impact on the game of baseball and the players who have followed him can not be overstated, and his memory continues to live on, as many players throughout the game of baseball will one again wear his famous number 42 on their jerseys in tribute today.
And so, due in no small part to the great contributions that Robinson has made, I’ll be able to sit down tonight and watch some of my favorite ballplayers take the field. I’ll watch Monte Harrison patrol centerfield in Wisconsin. I’ll watch Victor Roache hit bombs in Biloxi and I’ll watch Chris McFarland turn double plays at Robinson’s former position. And for the opportunity to do all of that, I say simply, THANK YOU, JACKIE ROBINSON!