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The importance of telling stories

April 16, 2012

Sixty-five years ago yesterday, the Brooklyn Dodgers hosted the Boston Braves and won, 5-3. Vin Scully wasn’t calling Dodger games yet. It was opening day for the 1947 season, a sure sign that winter would fade and springs rains would give way to summer. Winter faded in the background the same way World War II did, and the Depression before that. The world was full or promise and potential.

And a black man started at first base for the Dodgers that night, officially obliterating the color barrier–an unwritten rule that had existed in Major League Baseball for decades. Jackie Robinson’s debut caused a number of unseemly reactions, from death threats to a threat by the Philadelphia Phillies to refuse to take the field for any Dodgers game. Counter threats of a lifetime ban called that bluff effectively and history was made as Robinson went 0-for-3 with a run scored.

Just shy of 27 years later, the FBI was on hand as Henry Aaron hit a 1-0 pitch off Dodgers starter Al Downing into the left-field bullpen as the Braves, now playing in Atlanta, the heart of the deep south, beat the Dodgers, 7-4.

Scully was then in his 24th year calling Dodger games and he summarized the moment as you’d expect he would, if you followed the game:

What a marvelous moment for baseball. What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep south for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.

There was a heavy FBI presence at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that night, because of the many death threats against Aaron. When two white men ran onto the field and congratulated Aaron on his accomplishment, Aaron’s wife–and a number of others–held their breath. Their congratulatory gestures marked a passage of sorts. The same thing wouldn’t have happened in Atlanta twenty years earlier.

It’s not a big deal now for a black man to get a standing ovation the deep south. Bo Jackson amazed people at Auburn University. Deion Sanders starred for Florida State and the Braves. Dominique Wilkins defied gravity on regular basis for the Atlanta Hawks.

But it wasn’t until 1974 that Frank Robinson became the first black manager of a major league team. Art Shell was the first black head coach in the NFL in 1989. For me and my generation, that’s still amazing–and not in a good way.

For me, I don’t understand how you can get angry at a man for breaking a record he earned because of the color of his skin. I can’t understand being so angry as to mail a death threat. My children don’t know a world in which a black man has never played Major League Baseball. Or managed a team. Or coached an NFL team.

But the stories are important. When Aaron broke into the bigs, he couldn’t stay with the team at spring training. Neither could Jackie Robinson, or Willie Mays–perhaps the best all-around baseball player ever. Those stories are unbelievable to me, even more so to my kids. My son’s Little League team has a couple black kids, some Hispanics, a kid of Asian descent, a couple good old boys, and a white kid born near Chicago.

One day, he’ll pick up a book and read about Jackie Robinson went through. And he’ll be appalled. And amazed. And wonder how it could be that way.

Only with the stories will he understand.

That’s why we tell stories.

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One Comment
  1. April 16, 2012 11:09 am

    Chris: As we immerse ourselves in the cast of characters of a book, our hearts lead our minds that moves us beyond a basic intellectual recognition that somethng is not appropriate, fair –or moral. This powerful combination of cognition plus emoption allows us to empathize with the struggle, to imagine our own response and to kindle our commitment to equality. As we continue on this uphill climb, it is important to remind ourselves of the sacrifices and humiliations endured by the trail blazers in the march. Literature serves to inspire, challenge and fuel action. As writers we wield a powerful force.

    Thanks for a great post.

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