King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball's obsession with Jackie Robinson tributes has helped turn him from fiery activist to paper saint. Plus: 4-overtime NHL playoff opener.


Salon Staff
April 12, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

Major League Baseball has a variety of events scheduled for Sunday to honor Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which broke baseball's color line.

In one of the stranger tributes, more than 150 players, including five whole teams, will wear Robinson's No. 42 Sunday. Ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut, commissioner Bud Selig announced that baseball was retiring his number, forbidding all players who weren't already wearing No. 42 from ever doing so.

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So it's a tribute to Robinson to avoid wearing his number, and it's also a tribute to him to wear his number. I think that about covers it, don't you?

But here's a better question, and by asking it I don't mean to denigrate Robinson's contributions to baseball and to the wider culture, which were monumental: Is there a point at which we don't need any more tributes to Jackie Robinson?

Baseball seems to have made a cottage industry out of paying tribute to Robinson. Or maybe it's a fetish.

On the one hand, you almost can't pay too much tribute to Jackie Robinson. I get that. Just showing up, just being the first black player in the modern majors, carrying that standard, kicking down those barriers, putting up with levels of abuse and open hatred that are just about unfathomable in our hardly racially harmonious day and age, that would have made Robinson a towering figure.

To do all that and to also be Jackie Robinson, the baseball player, the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, batting champ, two-time stolen base champ and six-time All-Star in a career that didn't even start until he was 28, that made him a colossus.

And not one who rested on his laurels. He remained active and angry between his retirement in 1956 and his death in 1972. Just before he died, he had to be cajoled into attending the World Series, which he'd intended to stay away from in protest of baseball's unconscionable lack of black managers.

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That's not the Jackie Robinson Major League Baseball likes to talk about, the one who today would be loudly questioning why baseball isn't doing more to get more black faces on the field, in the stands, in front offices and in owners' suites.

The Jackie Robinson baseball pays tribute to with its silly numbers games is a paper saint. Here he is shaking hands with Branch Rickey. Here he is getting a hit, racing around the bases, stealing home. Here's his widow, Rachel Robinson, baseball's Coretta Scott King.

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In fact, what has happened to Robinson is similar to what has happened to Martin Luther King Jr., who's also something of a paper saint these days, someone almost everybody can get behind, however they might have felt about him as a contemporary.

You can just ignore the things you might not have liked back then. So conservatives can forget that King talked a lot in his last years about the oppressive nature of poverty and about the evils of American aggression overseas. And baseball can forget that Robinson scolded it repeatedly in his later years for celebrating the end of Jim Crow but not doing more in the present.

Certainly we should never forget Jackie Robinson, and marking the anniversary of his debut is fine. But isn't it time we used the occasion for more than just another set of hosannas for No. 42?

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April 15, 1947, wasn't what was so important about Jackie Robinson. It was everything that came after. Wouldn't now be a nice time, six months after he was put out to pasture by the Washington Nationals, to pay tribute to Frank Robinson, who became the first black manager three years after Jackie died?

And it was everything that came before too, the half century and more of great black players who were denied the chance to play in the majors. Every school kid knows Jackie Robinson's story by now. But how many adult baseball fans have never even heard of Oscar Charleston? There were people who saw Oscar Charleston and Willie Mays play who said Charleston was better. Think about that, and the fact that you almost never hear Charleston's name unless you're looking for it.

I'd be a smarter guy making more money and working better hours if I knew how to reverse the trend of fewer and fewer blacks playing in the major leagues, which stems from an apparent decreasing interest in baseball among black kids. But the Jackie Robinson anniversary could be used to highlight whatever this year's initiative might be.

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There are all sorts of ways to pay tribute to the role of blacks and the African-American community in baseball and baseball history other than running Jackie Robinson's No. 42 jersey up the flagpole every April. Baseball could pay tribute to a different all-time great player each year. Or to a Negro Leagues team.

Instead, Major League Baseball turns again and again to Jackie Robinson. Even though it's likely no one in baseball history is more deserving of tribute than Robinson, MLB's obsession with him is starting to look like a way for it to talk about race without really having to talk about race.

That's never a good thing. With all due respect to No. 42, and never forgetting what Jackie Robinson accomplished and what he represented, it's time to move on.

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NHL playoffs: Canucks, Stars work overtime times 4 [PERMALINK]

The NHL playoffs were in midseason form right away on their first night Wednesday. And their first morning Thursday. Unless you're on the West Coast -- and even if you're on the West Coast if you have an early job or little kids -- the hockey playoffs are a two-month festival of trying to stay awake, and usually not because the games are dull.

The Vancouver Canucks beat the Dallas Stars 5-4 in four overtimes Wednesday -- and Thursday -- finally putting opening night to bed at about 3:30 a.m. EDT, around 12:30 a.m. local time in Vancouver.

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If you live in the East, you're not from Vancouver or Dallas, you weren't going to be up at 3:30 anyway, you weren't being paid to watch and you saw Daniel Sedin feed his twin brother Henrik with a pass from behind the net and Henrik beat goalie Marty Turco with 18:06 gone in the seventh period to win Game 1 of a Western Conference opening-round series, my puckhead's off to you. You really like hockey.

Which is sort of like saying squirrels really like nuts. I mean, you really like hockey.

The San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators also went into overtime, settling things in the second extra session, the slackers. Patrick Rissmiller scored at 8:14 to give the visiting Sharks a 5-4 win.

The Ottawa Senators spoiled Sidney Crosby's playoff debut, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins at home 6-3, and the Anaheim Ducks got a goal with 5:20 left to avoid overtime and beat the Minnesota Wild at home 2-1.

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The Canucks and Stars combined for 132 shots, with Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, in his first playoff game, making 72 saves. That sounds like an incredible number of shots, and it is for one night, but on a per-minute basis, the shots didn't come much hotter and heavier than they did in the regular-season games between these teams.

The Canucks and Stars split four 2-1 games during the regular year, combining for 11 goals in 12 periods and two five-minute overtimes. One of the games ended 1-1, Vancouver won by shootout, and that goes in the books as a 2-1 final.

So the 4-4 score in regulation Wednesday was surprising, but this could easily have been about a 2-1 game too. Turco was victimized by two bad bounces, one off a teammate's skate in the crease and one off the glass behind him, and Luongo let in two softies that he should have had for the Stars' first and last goals.

Given all that, the tense, conservative nature of sudden-death overtime and garden variety fatigue -- I mean the players' fatigue, not yours -- 78-plus minutes of double-shutout hockey in O.T. wasn't exactly a shock.

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It wasn't exactly a thrill either. Columbus Blue Jackets head coach Ken Hitchkock, working the studio desk for the Versus TV network, pointed out after the third overtime that there hadn't been a single odd-man rush since the end of regulation, and very few of those desperate scrambles in front that usually result in the game-winning goal in these springtime marathons.

But there's a rhythm and tension to overtime playoff hockey that's unique in the major sports. It's not the same in Round 1, Game 1 as it is in elimination games and later rounds, but it's still there. And when it finally ends, in this case with Henrik Sedin scoring off a pass from twin brother Daniel mere moments after Daniel had taken a pass from Henrik and hit the post, the relief and joy are something to behold.

I mean yours.

The other half of the remaining league starts its playoff season Thursday night. The New York Rangers at Atlanta, Calgary at Detroit, Tampa Bay at New Jersey and the New York Islanders at Buffalo. The latest start time is 8 p.m. EDT in Buffalo, so 3:30 a.m. isn't likely.

But we're ready if two of those teams want to play four or five overtimes. We're warmed up out here.

Previous column: Author Derek Zumsteg on cheating in baseball

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