“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… all I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”

Today is Jackie Robinson Day in the major leagues, a chance to celebrate and honor the memory of the man who sixty years ago braved an unfathomable torrent of hatred and abuse to step onto the field as a baseball player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a make or break moment: if Robinson had been unable to handle the situation and had fought back either verbally or physically, “The Great Experiment” of Branch Rickey would have been over before it started, the fears of the plan’s opponents confirmed, the chances of other African-American players being signed unlikely.

As it was, April 15, 1947 was the nation’s first glimpse of Jackie Robinson’s will, the day he showed every American, baseball fan or not, that he had the same right as any other man to play major league baseball and would not leave the game until someone proved him unworthy on the field. They never did.

Many have wondered recently what Jackie Robinson, the man who opened the door for blacks to play baseball on the same level as whites, might say about the downward turn in African-American participation in the National Pastime. Most say he would be frustrated, demanding of more change, willing to fight to make sure everyone had the opportunity to play.

I wonder, however, if by lamenting the lack of African-Americans in the game today, we are underselling the true reach of Jackie Robinson’s influence and the results of that one game. On my television right now is the replay of a game between the Red Sox and Mariners from April 2006. David Ortiz just hit a homerun. Manny Ramirez is now batting. The opposing catcher is Kenji Johjima. Ichiro Suzuki played right field and scored Seattle’s first run. Carl Everett was the Mariners designated hitter.

Only one of those men is African-American, but it’s not a reach to suggest that none of them would be in the major leagues if Jackie Robinson had failed.

So this afternoon, be thankful for the fact that Jackie Robinson was a man of great strength. It would be a different game, and a different world, without him.

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