Jackie Robinson and The Knucklehead

The Knucklehead is 8.

When you’re a white male raising a son in America, it never hurts to remind yourself that this sweet, spirited boy is in fact, a future middle-aged white man in training. Since we already have quite a few of them on the pile, it’s a good idea to make one a little special. So, if there’s not already a bit of urgency to ethically raising your kid, well, here’s a little more pressure for you. Not a bad idea to get him looking outward early on.

The Knucklehead and I are students of baseball, so we already know about Jackie Robinson, as do you, and everybody else. Our bedtime reading these days, after the tucking in and the talk of the day, is a few pages from Robert Peterson’s excellent Only the Ball Was White, the classic history of Negro Leagues baseball. We’re reading about the players, the managers, the fans, the gangsters, the tycoons. We’re reading about conditions on the road, segregation as these men travelled (and they always travelled, even the few teams that had home venues). But mostly, and this always surprises people, we’re learning about baseball. How it’s played. How it can be played. How you take the team that you have and win with it.

People get that Jackie Robinson changed the face of baseball. What people don’t always get is that the Negro Leagues changed the style of play of White baseball in this country. White baseball was becoming, for the most part, a power game. You got on base and waited for the big hitter to knock everybody in. Pitchers focused on the hitter, not whoever happened to be on base.  Sure, you got worried when a couple guys got on base, but only for what that meant to the guy at the plate. You didn’t worry all that much about what they would do while you were pitching to the batter.

But in Negro Leagues baseball, the hitter’s job was only beginning once he got on base. Once there, he became a base runner. His job was to steal if he could, but mostly plant doubt into the defense. Be cagey. Be unpredictable. Take an outrageous lead, then saunter back to base. Be a distraction, so when the time came, you could grab an extra base for your team. It was a whole different way of playing the game.

So when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby and their brethren hit the White major leagues, they brought a faster game with them, a faster, and far more unpredictable game. The best of the white players had to adapt, and did. The Negro Leagues players had to adapt as well; they had to adjust to a power game, the expectation that more was required of the hitter, and that the chances you took on the base paths had to be weighed against who was at the plate. Baseball became a far more interesting and entertaining game. It became something new, that neither white players nor black players were used to, or might have come up with on their own.

Of course I’m generalizing here, but you can do that with an eight-year-old, especially if you’re using baseball as a metaphor. When you’re teaching basic human equality to a child, the unspoken question behind it all is “why?” Really, why should white kids care about what’s going on with black kids? Why should boys care about the concerns of girls? Why should we, in our little family, town, or nation, care about the problems of another family, town, or nation? Why is this such a big deal? Of course equality, and basic human rights is important in and of itself. Of course it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s all you’ve got, aren’t we simply engaging in paternalism? Doesn’t that actually lead us to look down on the people we deign to treat decently? I think your average 8-year-old needs something with a little more teeth than, “Because it’s nice.”

Because we need each other. White baseball needed black baseball to make the game more interesting, more challenging, and more fun, and vice-versa. That’s the metaphor. Though what Jackie Robinson did was personally extraordinary, what his brothers did for our brothers went far beyond that. We have a lot of challenges in this world. We need all the help we can get if we’re solve the problems we need to solve. It’s why white guys need black guys. It’s why boys need girls. Why the young need the old, the straight need the queer, and on, and, on, and on. It’s the first step a kid takes to discovering that we are really all in this together.

I asked The Knucklehead if basketball would be better if they didn’t let Michael Jordan play. If movies would be better if they didn’t let Jackie Chan perform. He looked at me like I was nuts. That’s my boy.

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10 Responses to Jackie Robinson and The Knucklehead

  1. Barth says:

    Awesome! Great writing, great topic, cleverly and clearly addressed. Keep writing, please!

  2. Ron says:

    I really can only offer a second to Barth’s comment. Very well done, my friend. I’m an admirer!

  3. Jaime says:

    Congratulations, Pete! This is wonderful, and I’m excited for more posts. You’re a very cool guy. The “needing each other” metaphor is right on, and I’m going to share this with my students.

  4. Suzanne Leach Magrowski says:

    Love this, Pete! Beautifully said. Keep it up.

  5. Liz says:

    Pete. I just read all your Blogs (can I call them something else? I hate that word. ) anyway. These are great. Keep it up. I enjoyed hearing your voice in each one.

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