In the news, the American soccer federation has officially dropped its ban on players taking a knee during the pre-game Anthem, which made sense, inasmuch as many women on the team were doing it anyway.
One of the leaders of that gesture was Megan Rapinoe, the charismatic and inventive force for this generation of championships and public prominence.
As it happens, I have been reading a new book, “42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” edited by Michael G. Long, which goes from the bad old days to the time of Colin Kaepernick, the ostracized quarterback.
(I have a chapter in Long’s book, a labor of love for JR42 and all the positive things he wrought.)
One of the many great chapters is “The First Famous Jock for Justice,” contributed by Peter Dreier, whose second paragraph lists a history of activist-athletes after JR42: starting with Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente and noting Billie Jean King, and moving into current outspoken athletes – LeBron James, Sean Doolittle and Kaepernick.
The last name on the list is Megan Rapinoe, she of the hair that blends pink/purple/platinum/lavender into a Megan-esque one of a kind. She also draws notice with her imaginative forays from the left wing, dismaying her coaches until they realized she opened defenses and won championships with her copious supply of quick wits and gall.
What would Jackie Robinson think of Megan Rapinoe? That is the question for today, and really the question posed by this thoughtful and knowledgeable book. In Michael Long's introduction, Rachel Robinson, named “The Queen Mother” by the late Joe Morgan, is not sure how her patriotic, ex-Army-officer, pro-business, one-time Nixonite Republican late husband, would feel about taking a knee during the anthem.
Then again, what would Jackie Robinson have thought about a seditious President organizing and goading a raggle-taggle army of thugs and lunatics and racists into a murderous assault on the Capitol? What would JR42 have thought about the death-by-knee of George Floyd and the shooting of a jogger, Armaud Arbery?
In his chapter, Dreier supplies Robinson's point of view, as presented in his 1972 book, "I Never Had It Made," with Alfred Duckett: "I can't believe that I have it made while so many of my Black brothers and sisters are hungry, in adequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity, live in slums or barely exist on welfare. I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world."
These are pertinent issues in Long's brand-new book as contemporary as outing the Golden Globes for having zero, count-em zero, voters for Sunday’s awards (with numerous black winners.)
It is always useful to take a fresh look at historical figures, every decade or two. My chapter, “Jackie Robinson Ball,” recalls how Robinson imported the dashing, disruptive style of the Negro Leagues into the so-called Major Leagues – Chuck Berry and Aretha Franklin playing on the same card as Doris Day and Bing Crosby, if you will. He caught the “major leagues” flat-footed.
The other chapters are stimulating and courant, by writers familiar to me, like Howard Bryant and Gerald Early and Jonathan Eig and others with academic and political outlooks. One illuminating chapter looks into Robinson’s spiritual life as a Methodist; another looks into the failure of white mainstream journalism to make a big deal of Robinson’s first tense spring, 1947.
One chapter that taught me a lot was “I’ve Got to Be Me,” by Yohuru Williams, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Williams’ great feel for the shifting tectonic plates of public life comes through as he delineates how Robinson, the wannabe pro-business Republican, navigated the borders of Martin Luther King, the NAACP, the Black Panthers and Malcolm X.
Robinson was inclined to oppose the black-gloved display by two Olympic medalists in 1964, but later he remembered Malcolm’s prophetic charge: “Jackie, in days to come, your son and my son will not be willing to settle for things we are willing to settle for.” Years after Malcolm’s assassination, Robinson added: “I am certain that this is correct and that this is the way it should be.”
Jackie Robinson is not confined to the memories of aging Brooklyn Dodger fans like me. Michael Long’s book makes JR42 a living and evolving presence in the age of Kaepernick and Rapinoe.
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Ladies and gentlemen, Woodrow (Buddy) Johnson with Count Basie: