Jackie and Me

opening-day

I’m excited to see how people react to the new Ken Burns documentary on Jackie Robinson–not only because I think it’s great work but also because I’m always curious to see how people respond when their myths are challenged.

I took a lot of heat when I said Al Capone probably had nothing to do with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. I also got a lot of angry emails and letters when I said Pee Wee Reese did not put his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulder to quiet a hostile crowd in 1947 on the team’s first trip to Cincinnati.

Though the incident has been recounted in books, movies, and even in a statue, there was no coverage of it in 1947. In fact, newspapers at the time said Robinson was greeted warmly by fans in Cincinnati. Pee Wee and Jackie said they thought something similar happened in 1948 or 1949, perhaps in Boston. But there’s very little reason to believe it happened in 1947, when it would have mattered most.

Why do we get so attached to these myths? In this case, it’s because they make us feel good. They make us feel like black and white people wanted to get along, that even a white man from Kentucky recognized the wisdom of integration. But think about the flip side. What do these myths say about Jackie? That he couldn’t do it alone? Why do we¬†need to concoct stories that¬†undermine the pain he endured? In making ourselves feel a little less guilty, we diminish what Robinson accomplished, which was to march alone, one black man, unwanted, in a league of 399 white men, one man determined to prove that he and others could succeed if only given a fair chance.

Sorry, but Pee Wee Reese had nothing to do with that.

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