By Ken Reed
My family and I had just plunked our buns down on the hard green seats at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies.
I was getting ready to kick back, shut down my mind, admire the green grass and enjoy a big league baseball game. But then my 10-year-old asked me, “Daddy, why is the number 42 on the outfield fence?”
Well, I knew there wasn’t a simple answer to that question but I felt fairly confident that I could do it since I’d recently read a piece on Jackie Robinson.
“Honey, that number has been retired by Major League Baseball. It’s displayed in every Major League ballpark. It honors a great man who happened to be a great baseball player.”
“No, honey,” I said with a quick laugh. “It actually honors a man named Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42 when he played. Robinson was just the opposite of Bonds. He was a man of great integrity, courage and a powerful sense of fairness. Jackie Robinson was a Most Valuable Player and World Champion on the baseball field, but more importantly for our country, he was an MVP and World Champion in the game of life.”
“The game of life?”
“Yep, the game of life. Robinson fought hard for social justice during his playing days and after he retired. Believe it or not, at one time Major League Baseball wouldn’t let African Americans play because of the color of their skin. I know it sounds crazy and unbelievable but it’s true. Jackie Robinson was the first black player to break the color barrier.”
“Why did he get to be first?”
“Good question,” I said in my unexpected role as social studies teacher. “Branch Rickey was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They’re the Los Angeles Dodgers now. Rickey believed African Americans should have the right to play Major League Baseball. But he knew the first black player would receive abuse from white fans, players on other teams and even players on his own team. So, he was looking not only for a great player but a person that was mentally tough enough to take a lot of personal attacks.”
“It must have been hard to play when everyone was calling you names.”
“It certainly was. After Rickey told Robinson about the type of mental discipline he was looking for in the first black Major League Baseball player, Robinson asked, ‘Do you want a player afraid to fight back?’ Rickey replied that he needed a player ‘with the guts not to fight back.’ Robinson would have to display tremendous self-control.”
“Did he do it?”
“He ended up being selected the Rookie of the Year but he faced discrimination all season long. During one game against the Cincinnati Reds early in the season, Robinson was being heckled …”
“… yelled at by Reds fans and players. Pee Wee Reese, a white man from the South, and the Dodgers shortstop and team captain, was a big supporter and friend of Robinson’s when a lot of players – opponents and teammates alike – weren’t due to the color of Jackie’s skin. Reese later said:
“You can hate a man for many reasons; color is not one of them.’”
“It sure was, and a brave thing to do by Reese. It actually, took three courageous people, Rickey, Robinson, and Reese – all with names ending in “R” ironically, ‘The Three R’s’ – to make this equal rights experiment successful. All three had the guts to do the right thing when public pressure was against them.”
“Was Jackie a good player?”
“Well, he went on to win the league MVP award, make six All-Star teams, win the World Series and be inducted into the Hall of Fame. But then he started doing some really good stuff.”
“After Jackie Robinson retired, he started working tirelessly for social justice causes. He wanted people to have equal rights and opportunities no matter what their skin color or gender. For his work, he received two of the biggest awards any American can receive: the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He also was picked by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.”
“So, that’s why the number 42 is on the outfield fence,” I concluded.
“Okay, Daddy,” said my daughter with a ‘it’s time to move on’ kind of tone. “Can we go get some popcorn?”
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of FansPrint
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Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
A League of Fans Special Report