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Jackie Robinson changed America for the better

Editorial

In a world where entertainment and sports is too often confused with heroism, actors, singers and athletes tend to be placed on pedestals that are quite a bit too high and, in most cases, undeserved.

While being a great actor or athlete is indeed a wonderful skill — and a lucrative one — the real heroes are those who risk their lives and livelihoods for the greater good, particularly military personnel, law enforcement officers, firefighters or other public safety personnel. These are the people who every day put their lives, health and well-being on the line for people they don’t know. A favorite definition we have for a hero is an ordinary person who, facing extraordinary and dangerous circumstances, acts extraordinarily.

But there are rare cases when an athlete justifiably can be described as a hero. And one of those rare cases is Jackie Robinson, a Cairo native whose life story hit the big screen on Friday in the film “42.”

Forty-two, of course, is Robinson’s jersey number, the one he wore as when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and became the first African American to compete in Major League Baseball. Baseball, more than any other sport, reveres its great players, preserving their careers in statistics that stretch back to the late 19th century.

And Robinson’s numbers are certainly those worthy of a Hall of Famer. After taking the field in 1947 at the age of 28, Robinson, a six-time all-star second baseman, compiled a .311 batting average for his 10-year career, scoring 947 runs, collecting 1,518 hits (including 137 home runs), stealing 197 bases and driving in 734 runs. In 4,877 at bats he struck out only 291 times — never more than 40 times in a season. During a career in which he won baseball’s inaugural rookie of the year award and later was an MVP, he had a lifetime .409 on-base average, which means he got on base two times for every five at bats.

But while the numbers stand for themselves, they don’t tell the whole story.

Talented as he was on the field, Robinson became the man who broke the color barrier in baseball because of his bravery. While America still has its problems with race these days, it’s hard for an individual in 2013 to understand the era in which Robinson played. The Civil Rights Movement was years away, and African Americans were treated as second-class citizens. In most parts of the country, there was a hard line drawn between the races, and that included Major League Baseball, which had always been an all-white sport.

Branch Rickey, the Dodgers’ general manager, chose Robinson to play for his team and break the color barrier because he believed — and rightly so — that Robinson had the mental toughness and iron will that would be needed to take the taunts, jeer and hatred that would be thrown at him from the fans, opposing players and even his own teammates. The easy reaction for Robinson would have been to fight back. He had the discipline to take the abuse for the greater good.

For African Americans, Robinson didn’t open the door to a career in professional sports. He kicked the door off its hinges.

Sadly, Robinson was taken from us far too early when he died from a heart attack in 1972. One can’t help but wonder how many years of his life were cut short from the stress of the abuse he took.

But he left a marvelous legacy, one that showed that a person should be judged on ability and character, not because of skin color. A lesser man placed in his position could easily have failed. Robinson, however, prevailed in so many ways. Taunted mercilessly his rookie year, in 1947 — the year he retired — he ranked only behind crooner Bing Crosby as the most popular man in America.

The film will introduce Robinson to a new generation. We can only hope that it shows to them the strength of Robinson’s character and will. Robinson was a hero in every sense of the word, one who made America a better place.

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