In Downtown Brooklyn, a Curveball on Jackie Robinson Day

Today, April 15, is Jackie Robinson Day, though with MLB’s season postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the celebration has taken on a different form. So has my observation, albeit not quite by choice.

As a writer who grew up a third-generation Dodgers fan and who has lived in Brooklyn for the past 12 1/2 years, I’ve generally greeted the day as an opportunity not just to acknowledge Robinson’s bravery and the pivotal moment of integration but to further our understanding of the man and the context that surrounded his career. That effort now extends to my own 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Robin (her name is not a coincidence). She already owns a Robinson shirsey (her second one, actually) and both my wife — Emma Span, managing editor of The Athletic’s MLB vertical — and I have made efforts to tell her a version of his story that she can understand.

In late February, we visited Robin’s preschool and gave a presentation on the basics of baseball as part of a “Family Traditions” series during which we touched upon Robinson. As it turned out, learning about him dovetailed with the class’s recent learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes, and as a result, a picture of Robinson was soon posted to the wall alongside them.

With Robin home from school due to the pandemic, I had planned to read her an age-appropriate book or two about Robinson that I had found on Epic, a digital platform recommended by her school that has been invaluable during this period of “distance learning.” We read this one and this one, both of which sketched some basic details of his life and of segregation, highlighting his significance while understandably steering clear of the complexities and the true ugliness of the efforts to thwart him. Nothing remarkable, just stuff a three-year-old can digest.

My post-reading plan was to take Robin to visit the nearby Robinson plaque located on 2015 Montague Street, the bygone site of the Dodgers’ business office where Robinson signed his first professional contract on August 28, 1945, “thus initiating the process of becoming the first African-American player on a major league baseball team — integrating the major leagues and making baseball truly the pastime of all the nation,” as the inscription reads. I first discovered the plaque in March 2007, shortly after being shown an apartment in downtown Brooklyn; I took it as a sign that the borough, and that particular apartment, should be my new home, and moved in later that year. I pass the spot frequently (at least when I’m not under a stay-at-home directive), but nonetheless make a special point of paying my respects on April 15.

Alas, as Robin and I approached the site, I noticed that the plaque had gone missing. It turns out that it was taken down sometime before Christmas, temporarily removed to repair damage due to “normal wear and tear” and has yet to be reinstalled. That’s a bummer, so you’re deprived of my mask-wearing selfie with the plaque and instead will have to settle for the picture I took of Robin three years ago. As was so often said in Brooklyn, “Wait ’til next year!”

I had planned to write a longer piece about my frustrations with where Major League Baseball finds itself on this particular Jackie Robinson Day, particularly with regards to the collision between the long-term trend of declining African American representation on major league rosters and the impending constriction of opportunities to play ball. The pandemic appears likely to accelerate efforts to shorten the amateur draft, to reduce signing bonuses, and to contract the minor leagues, resulting in fewer jobs in professional baseball and further disincentivizing multisport athletes to pursue the game; meanwhile, the college ranks will feel a logjam caused by granting current players an extra year of eligibility, and likely a reduction in funding due to a loss of revenue. That screed can wait, however, until the issues that underly it aren’t in danger of being overshadowed by the other serious matters more presently at hand. Again, wait ’til next year.

I leave you with a handful of personal favorites from my storehouse of annual Jackie Robinson Day writing:

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Bartolo Cologne
2 years ago

Thanks, Jay, and happy Jackie Robinson Day! Dropping in to share a link of my own to Vin Scully telling the story of Gene Hermanski first giving the idea of everyone wearing number 42. I love this story because it paints such a vivid and intimate picture of what Jackie was going through and beautifully connects the past with the present. We’re all better off for Jackie’s bravery. And getting the story told to us by Scully (who was there) is the ultimate cherry on top.