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Willie Harris was a high school senior enthused with the sport when his English teacher suggested he write a paper about Jackie Robinson, the MLB Hall of Famer who broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947.
“I was in high school and my English teacher knew how I felt about baseball. She recommended that I write my paper on Jackie Robinson,” the Cubs third-base coach told CHGO this week. “That’s when I dug deep into his life and his career and learned so much about him and decided, ‘Hey, I want to be a major league ballplayer, too.’”
Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced in 2004 that every April 15 would be “Jackie Robinson Day.” The day isn’t about wearing the iconic number 42 or the win/loss result; it’s about remembering the courage it took for Robinson to achieve his feats. It’s about celebrating the human that Robinson was and the profound impact he had on society.
“I think people try to view Jackie in this singular way when he was complex and human and existed as a black man in the United States,” Shakeia Taylor, an award-winning Chicago-based freelance sport and culture writer, said. “He wasn’t just a barrier breaker; there was a lot to that. There were socio-political ramifications to him doing that.”
Yes, breaking the color barrier is an important part of Robinson’s legacy, but it’s not the only part of his storied life. Robinson was vocal about the racial injustice that continues to plague America and wrote about his disdain for the anthem in his memoir. When Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey signed Robinson, he endured racial slurs being shouted at him by fans, players and managers alike.
“One of my early goals as a writer has been to expose the humanity of Jackie Robinson,” Taylor said. “The people who bring up Jackie Robinson or invoke his memory the way they do Martin Luther King Jr., and I don’t think they would support him today.”
The Georgia native also led through actions, including starting a bank to assist the Black community from a financial standpoint.
“Back in Jackie’s time, there was a line of thinking that Black capitalism could help anchor the Black community,” Taylor says. “One of the main things that Black people had difficulties doing was securing a loan for a home. He started a bank, it did not last, but he had the best of intentions.”
Despite the persistent backlash and cruel treatment, Robinson acted for the betterment and advancement of Black people, ultimately winning the Spingarn Medal — the highest achievement the NAACP can award — in 1956. After an unceremonious retirement that saw a divide created between Robinson and the Dodgers, he largely stayed away from baseball during his retirement. Robinson had become disgruntled over the years with the lack of opportunities for Black players post-retirement, particularly in the managerial ranks.
In what turned out to be his last public appearance, Robinson was honored before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. Robinson took that moment on the microphone to condemn Major League Baseball for the lack of Black managers in the game.
“I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but I must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball,” Robinson said.
As of 2022, there are only two Black managers in MLB — the Astros’ Dusty Baker and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts.
Harris is from Cairo, Georgia, a small Georgia city with a population of around 10,000, so he understands Robinson’s importance to the game as well as anyone. The two share the hometown connection, but as the third-base coach for the Cubs, Harris is living out the dream that Robinson hoped would occur one day for former Black players.
“To be coaching third base for the Chicago Cubs is a huge honor,” Harris said. “Without Jackie none of this is possible, and for him to say what he said back then and for me to be living it right currently, it means a ton to me.
“I want to do a great job not only for my organization but also for Jackie and everything he went through. I not only represent myself, but I represent a lot of other African American guys who might want to be a third-base coach one day.”
Cubs outfielder and Georgia native Jason Heyward believes there’s a lot to unpack from Robinson’s life, from the positives to the negatives. Life is about how you, the individual, react to adversity.
“As human beings, life is tough, it’s forever changing, and there’s no settling in,” Heyward said. “Not everyone has a great opportunity as myself or the next person, so I just continue to enjoy each day, man.
“Just stay in the moment, live that, give the best of what I have, and I think that’s a big part of why someone like Jackie was able to do what he did and receive the accolades, the respect, and for so many people to want to pay homage.”
Growing up, Heyward owned Negro League posters and banners and read books about Hank Aaron and Robinson. Though he had already fallen in love with the game, seeing players who looked like him left an impression.
In a video published on ESPN’s YouTube page, Jackie Robinson’s youngest son, David, said, “He was a man of few words, but a man of action,” about his late father, who died in 1972 from a heart attack. Robinson’s initiative to invoke change serves as motivation for Heyward, who is donating his Friday game check to the Jackie Robinson Foundation along with several other MLB personnel. Heyward is involved with the Player’s Alliance, which works in conjunction with the foundation.
“For the longest time, I got in this game at the Major League level at 20 years old, and I saw other guys who came before me do a lot of things to pass the torch,” Heyward says. “To say ‘Hey, we got the younger guys, we’re looking out,’ well now it’s my turn. I want to be a part of the solution and take action. Money isn’t the only thing that does that, but it is something that most definitely helps.”
Robinson’s perseverance paved the way for there to not only be Black major league ballplayers but also for Black women to find their place in the game. The Red Sox’s Bianca Smith is the first Black woman to serve as a coach. Lonnie Murray is the first Black woman to get certified as an MLB agent. There’s still more work to be done, however. According to wbur.org, the number of Black players in baseball “has dropped to nearly 8 percent.”
Still, none of that is possible without Robinson integrating the sport. Black kids can dream and aspire to work in baseball because of their predecessors such as Robinson, Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr., Derrek Lee and many more.
Seventy-five years after Robinson’s debut, his impact is still felt around baseball. Players like Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman and White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson can showcase their authentic selves because Robinson took the brunt of the criticism for being his genuine self. Robinson’s sacrifice led to generations of black players like Harris being able to dream.
“I’ve always felt that, when you have a dream — no matter who you are — whenever you have a dream, you have to protect your dream,” Harris said. “You don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can not do because that’s my dream. That’s how I operate ‘til this day.”
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