A Legacy of Difficult Listening
Listen and learn. That’s the only advice Jack gave to a young baseball player on a hot day in the summer of 1953. The rookie knew exactly what Jack meant, and never forgot it.
Jack was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. His mother single-handedly raised him and her four other children. They were a very tight-knit family. They battled many challenges as a young family in their community at that time.
In 1919 America was in transition. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, authorizing Prohibition, went into effect in the United States. The company that opened up travel for millions of American was under new leadership, as Edsel Ford succeeded his father as head of the Ford Motor Company. On January 6, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, died in his sleep at the age of 60. And on May 1, in Charleston, South Carolina, not far from Cairo, Georgia, three black men were killed in a riot, officially beginning “Red Summer.” That season was marked by hundreds of deaths and casualties across the United States; the result of racial riots that occurred in more than three dozen cities.
Yes, America was in transition in 1919 and young Jack would be forever influenced by his early years in a changing America. But Jack had a passion, strength, and a talent that would benefit the cultural transformation that was in its infancy in 1919.
In the mid-1930s, a 25-year-old named Karl Everitt Downs was the youth pastor at Scott Methodist Church where Jack’s mother, Mallie, worshipped. Reverend Downs made it his business to pursue young Jack. Legend has it that the pastor ran into a group of Jack’s friends loitering on a street corner, young and aimless. Reverend Downs asked for Jack, but no one in the group answered. The young pastor left a message. “Tell him I want to see him at junior church.” Sometime later, Jack delivered himself to the church and began a relationship with Reverend Downs that lasted only a few years, but changed the course of his life. America is changing, Downs preached. Listen and learn.
In 1945, Branch Rickey, a baseball executive with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and a man of serious faith, had a risky plan to change baseball forever. Rickey took council from Reverend L. Wendell Fitfield, who pastored the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. There, Rickey, took a knee, and prayed for assurance from God that he was making the right decision for the Dodgers, the league and for the country at large. He knew that his plan, signing the first African American baseball player, would bear the brunt of the nation’s unrest and ugliness. Rickey suspected whoever became the first African American in major league baseball will be viciously attacked, verbally and physically. Branch Rickey famously said he was looking for a man "with guts enough not to fight back." He needed someone who would resist the temptation to retaliate. Someone who could listen and learn, perhaps.
Of course we now know, Jack, or as he was known, Jackie Robinson was that man.
Jackie Robinson was exceptional in many ways. His story of achievement and overcoming is legendary. From his humble beginning would grow the first baseball player to break Major League Baseball's color barrier that segregated the sport for more than 50 years. In 1945, Jackie played one season in the Negro Baseball League, traveling all over the Midwest with the Kansas City Monarchs. In 1947, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey approached Jackie about joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Major Leagues had not had an African American player since 1889, when baseball became segregated.
When Jackie first donned a Brooklyn Dodger uniform, he pioneered the integration of professional athletics in America. By breaking the color barrier in baseball, the nation's preeminent sport, he courageously challenged the deeply rooted custom of racial segregation in both the North and the South.
Jackie Robinson’s life is well documented. His number 42 is retired from all MLB teams. What is not as well known are the hundreds of relationships he influenced and the out-of-the-way encounters he was committed to. Those relationships and encounters have done more to transform the nation than all his work in the sport. By the time Jack met the rookie in Chicago in the late summer of 1953, he knew exactly what he wanted to say to the rookie – what he had to say; what the rookie needed to hear. Listen and learn.
The rookie was Chicago Cubs great, Ernie Banks.
Ernie is "Mr. Cub." He played for 19 years for one major league baseball team, one owner, in one city, during one mayor, in one stadium, under one light - the sun. He is a member of the baseball Hall of Fame, The 500 Home Run Club and his number is retired from the Chicago Cubs and hangs on the foul pole in Wrigley Field today.
Mr. Banks was well known for his optimism and positive spirit. It is said that he coined the phrase "Let's play two,” a phrase he used every day there was a ball game to show his love for the game. It's worth noting Banks never won a championship with the Cubs. Yet his legacy today is one of optimism and great achievement.
Banks signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1950 and broke into the Major Leagues in 1953 with the Cubs as their first African American player.
In 1953, baseball great, Jackie Robinson, on a day off from work, sought Ernie out to simply give the rookie some advice, advice gleaned from a lifetime of practicing what he preached. Listen and learn, rookie. Listen and learn.
Jackie Robinson died October 24, 1972 at 53 years old. Ernie Banks died January 23, 2015, just shy of his 84th birthday. Both men lived an incredible life; Ernie, no doubt, with a little help from a brave friend.
There are many who deserve credit for influencing Jackie, who contributed to his, and eventually Ernie’s, legacy of strength, optimism, and courage. Mallie Robinson. Reverend Karl Everett Downs. Mr. Branch Rickey. Reverend Wendell Fitfield. Probably countless others. A strong, loving mother; a committed and fearless businessman; and Godly, Christ-teaching pastors, living out their duties and faith quietly and daily.
It is heartening to think about these two brave men, meeting on a baseball field in 1953 America, with no media attention, no crowd around, no corporate endorsements and no reason to be there, other than empathy, love and the courage to move forward and create change. Consider the elder sharing wisdom with the rookie. Consider how the rookie listened, and learned. It is powerful and life-changing indeed.
Perhaps if we desire more wisdom, better relationships, more empathy, sustainable outcomes, and a greater sense of purpose, we should simply listen and learn more. Three simple words. Listen to our family, to friends and colleagues. Listen to our team members, teachers, customers, and neighbors. Listen to our enemies. And after we listen, we can act on what we’ve learned. We can get intentionally engaged in meaningful relationships with purpose again. Perhaps we can reconcile or have peace.
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” — Jackie Robinson
And this is why, Legacy Matters...
Featurette No. 21 (c) www.legacyletters.xyz
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