Posts Tagged ‘Lou Gehrig’

jackie-robinson-1956_April 15 means a couple of things to some people.  Of course, there is the unpleasant connotation of it as being Tax Day, the due date for income tax filing here in the USA.  But for the baseball fan, it is a date that marks the first day a black player took the field as a major leaguer, when a special player ran out to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947.   This young black man was athletically gifted, smart and tough-minded.

That player was of course Jackie Robinson.

Major League Baseball now honors him on this day every year, Jackie Robinson Day, with every player on every team putting aside their own uniform numbers to wear his number 42, which is now retired throughout baseball. Currently, only Mariano Rivera wears the number 42 on his back  and after he retires at the end of this season, no player will ever wear the 42 on their back again outside of this day each year.

Retiring a number is a sacred thing in baseball.  A player’s number has an almost mystical connection with the fans.  Growing up, everyone knew that Babe Ruth was 3,  Lou Gehrig 4, Mickey Mantle 7, Willie Mays 24, Hank Aaron 44 and on an on.  Whenever I see the number 45 all I see is my hero Bob Gibson on the mound. And everyone , even Mariano Rivera fans like myself, knows that the 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson.

There is also a new movie out that bears that number and it tells the story of Robinson’s initial turbulent year with the Dodgers.  I haven’t seen it so I can’t really comment other than to say that it is a story that every child should know.  It is a remarkable story of self restraint and strength in the face of institutionalized hatred, one that made possible the  broader changes that took place in our country in the civil rights movement in the decades after Robinson’s first day on that field in 1947.

From what I have read, the biggest complaint is that the movie doesn’t really give a full accounting of Robinson’s life. Jackie was a legendary collegiate athlete at UCLA, lettering in four sports– football, basketball, track and baseball.  He was the NCAA champion in the Long Jump and could have easily played professional football.  Of course, that was impossible because  the NFL was segregated at that time as well.

Nor does it detail his military career which is of interest mainly for Robinson being court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus at Ft. Hood, Texas.   He was eventually acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of officers  but it was an incident that foretold of his strength and willingness to enter the fight in taking on the segregated major leagues.

Nor does it address the health problems that led to his early death.  He suffered from diabetes and was nearly blind when he had a heart attack that ended his life at the age of 53.  It was much too early for this remarkable man’s story to end.

As I said, it’s a story that every child should know and celebrate.

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Babe RuthI recently picked up a book titled Baseball’s Golden Age: The Photographs of Charles Conlon.  It is, as it says, a book of photos of baseball players from the first part of the 20th century.  The photos are all black and white and give the players a grim, rough edge.  Not that they needed the help.

From the time I was a kid I was always interested in baseball from the turn of the century.  I read all sorts of books on my heroes and we had an old souvenir-like program from the 40’s that had many of these same photos with short stories and stats of many of these players.  I spent hours and hours looking at these faces and names until they took on a talisman-like quality in my mind.  Guys like Nap LaJoie, Rabbit Maranville, Wee Willie  Keeler, Cy Young and on and on.  In reality, many of these guys probably wouldn’t shine in today’s game but in my mind they were magic.Ty Cobb

Of course, there was a hierarchy.  Shown above, the Bambino, Babe Ruth, was the king.  An actual Sultan of Swat accompanied by his prince, the steady Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.  Then there was the nasty tempered Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach, shown here in one of the most famous of baseball photos of its time.  Renowned for sharpening his spikes and using them on waiting fielders as he stole numerous bases, Cobb was always bitter over Ruth’s dominance of the spotlight.

These players always really stuck out in my mind because of the images and stories I encountered as a kid.  They were brawny and raw looking.  They drank hard.  They fought.  They had a hardened mythic look in their gray wool uniforms.  They didn’t look like the players of my youth.  In the 70’s baseball started to be played in awful multi-purpose stadiums with hard artificial turf surfaces, vast cold edifices that sapped all of the organic quality from the game.  The uniforms were evolving as well.  The 70’s brought these stretchy polyester space suits that only added to the artificial feel of the stadiums.  I always think of Willie Stargell, a large first baseman for the Pirates with a big personality who would’ve fit in well with my old-timers) in this god-awful form-fitting spacesuit.  He looked ridiculous.

Walter Johnson The Big TrainIt was easy at that time to drift away from the game that had provided so much magic when I was young.  I stayed away for almost twenty years, barely checking the races or stats.  I have a huge hole in my knowledge of the game from the 80’s and early 90’s.  The return of smaller stadiums built to fit baseball saw a rebirth but it was the Yankees that brought me back.  I had grown up despising the Yanks ( the voice of their announcer Phil Rizzuto was like fingernails on a chalkboard to me) but this team in the 90’s was a throwback.  They had grit.  They fought. They made plays that became mythic.  They made me feel like I was 9 years old again, reading the wonderful hyperbole of the old sportswriters as they made mighty pronouncements about the exploits of the Bambino.  Baseball was magic again.

So leafing through this book rekindled many memories.  With that I leave you with a short piece of film that simply shows the great Big Train,  Walter Johnson, throwing. I saw a part of this on Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary series on the game and was mesmerized by his extraordinarily long arms and the whipping action his arms.  There is a kind of poetic beauty in the motion.

Maybe that’s the poetry of baseball that people talk of…

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