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Jackie Robinson, Wendall Smith: American Baseball Heroes

Jackie Robinson
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jackie Robinson’s teammate Pee Wee Reese once said, “Maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear 42 so they won’t tell us apart.” Today, Reese’s famous quotation became true for African-Americans.

In fact, today, and on every April 15 all around the Major Leagues, baseball players will wear the number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson. However, African-Americans should be celebrating another person today, too.

Wendall Smith was the man that wrote about Jackie Robinson breaking history. Smith went to every game Robinson played with his typewriter in his lap because he wasn’t allowed in the press box due to the color of his skin.

Smith was the sports editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier. The Baseball Writers Association of American didn’t recognize him until Robinson’s second year in the Major Leagues, and he was later elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the writer’s wing in 1994.

Smith felt the highest of his colleague he wrote about. “He never backed down from a fight, never quit agitating for equality.”

For Robinson, he was more than just a first-baseman in the Major Leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was a pioneer for African-Americans to be able to fulfill their dreams to play professional baseball.

Robinson’s story begins 68 years ago when Dodgers owner Branch Rickey gave him a chance. Rickey told the 26-year old African-American ballplayer, “People aren’t going to like this, they are going to do anything to get you to react. Echo a curse with a curse, and they will hear only yours. Follow a blow with a blow, and they’ll say the Negro lost its temper. Your enemy will be out in force and you cannot meet him on his low ground.”

Robinson responded and said, “Do you want a player that doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
Rickey then told the young ballplayer, “No, I want a player that has the guts not to fight back.”

Rickey wanted Robinson to turn the other cheek, and he would quickly learn that fighting back wouldn’t be an option as teammates, opponents, managers, baseball executives would show their opposition. Robinson would hear insults, get kicked out of games, get hit by pitches, and hear threats from his opposition that said they wouldn’t play if he did.

Like his doubters, Robinson had plenty of believers, too. His owner, Branch Rickey, his wife, Rachel Robinson, his own teammates, his writer Wendall Smith, and African-Americans alike. These people all believed that he could be a not just a successful ballplayer, but a pioneer for the game of baseball.

The day had finally came on April 15, 1947 for the 28-year old Robinson, when he would walk up to the plate for the first time at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Robinson would show his believers and doubters that he did it. He would go 1-for-3 against Boston, and scored the game-winning run.

It’s because of that day in 1947 that ballplayers will wear the number 42 on the back of their jerseys on April 15 every year, and celebrate the man who had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson is in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and is the only ballplayer with his number retired. He broke baseball’s color barrier, and it is a moment that forever changed sports.

It’s hard to argue either that Smith wasn’t going to give up on his dream of becoming a recognized journalist that wasn’t judged by the color of his skin.

Robinson and Wendall Smith’s story were recently told on the big screens that hit theaters last Friday, and is worth watching for everyone – not just baseball fans. It’s a movie that shows how these two brave men replaced hatred with their love for the game, and job. Robinson truly let his talent do the talking, and Smith let his writing do the talking.

Both these men should be remembered, and recognized, not forgotten.

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