Although born from good intentions, the idea of Jackie Robinson the saint is a convenient, unfortunate concoction. It is true enough that Robinson changed America, and in turn, America changed with him. His image and name rests on awards and on stamps, on highways and schools, and in his sport, no player on any team will ever wear his number 42 again, except during the one game later this week, when every player, coach and umpire in the majors wears it.
The simple language at the root of his legend -- Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier -- sounds good and permanent and important, uncomplicated both for grade schoolers and adults alike, and the triumphant tone is consistent with America's enduring need for hope.
Yet even that is a concoction. At best, it is a fantasy discouraging the deeper, more painful excavation of the barriers he couldn't break and why, the ones society did not lower but strengthened because of the threat of his presence. At worst, it is a simplistic and corrosive lie designed to keep America from itself, to keep it from what it is, which is a nation far more comfortable with always being the good guy, always preferring the fairy tale to the truth.
The real Robinson, whole and unsanitized, was constantly human, competitive, flawed and pained, honorably naïve but always in determined opposition to the obstacles that prevented him from fulfilling a quest still unrealized some 44 years after his death: full partnership in the American dream for African-Americans. The real Robinson lives beautifully and heroically, inside a confectionary lie that his sainthood was something given by a redeemed America rather than taken from a resistant one.
The concoction undermines his true, enduring significance: the enormous cost of the legend, its actual price in isolation and hurt. Robinson paid for remaining in the fight, even when overmatched, and was betrayed, sometimes by his supporters. The better story for a nation so woefully divided is the real one of the person willing to pay the cost and suffer the cracks and fallibilities that came with it.
That story includes the Robinson who held in the slights until he could no longer, who once lost his temper, flipping a bat over his shoulder in frustration, only to get sued when the bat landed in the stands and conked a fan and his wife on the head. That story acknowledges the 1956 Robinson, older and slower and grayer, who looks very much like Tim Duncan today. That Robinson finished as an everyday, inning-by-inning threat, but fierce in competitive bursts, convinced of his ability to pull yet another moment of magic out of a spent body.
That story remembers the loyal Robinson who was a lifelong Republican, supporter of Richard Nixon, believer that the best hope for black America in 1960 lay with the Republican Party, convinced even as the evidence mounted against him, that the Party of Lincoln could still be counted on.
Robinson was such a powerful force during the 1960 presidential campaign between Nixon and John F. Kennedy that the Kennedy camp feared his influence with black America could tip the election to the Republicans. So their camp strategized, calling on another famous black ballplayer to neutralize Nixon. That player was Henry Aaron, who, beginning with that phone call from the Kennedy camp, became a lifelong Democratic supporter, all the way through the campaigns of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton once more. Through Robinson -- even though they were on opposite sides of the election -- came Henry Aaron's political awakening.
The whole Robinson was, in many ways, discarded by so many who grew famous and wealthy and better because of him. Aaron never wavered. Others did. Branch Rickey worked for Pittsburgh and St. Louis after leaving the Dodgers and never once offered Robinson a job in the game. Robinson gave the Dodger name perpetual social significance, and the Dodgers, more specifically owner Walter O'Malley, never returned his phone calls once he left the game. Major League Baseball will host the Civil Rights game this week in Memphis and players will wear his number, but the truth of his sainthood is that from the moment he retired until the day he died, baseball wanted very little to do with Jackie Robinson.
Robinson created the path for African-American achievements in other industries -- baseball integrated even before the military. Yet the man dedicated to black empowerment was ridiculed in the 1960s by too many of the very black people -- especially the young people -- he had fought for. He was to Malcolm X, for a time, the worst thing a black person could be called, an "Uncle Tom." He was, ironically, where Malcolm would soon find himself, flailing in the middle, unable to turn the corner. Too radical for the mainstream institutions like baseball and yet -- very much like the generational conflict between the Black Lives Matter movement and old guard Civil Rights activists -- too conservative and experienced for the young people whose fire blinded them from his scars and his wisdom.
Robinson understood what most young people could not: that the black man in America was a nowhere man, permanently severed from his own country and history, unable to build a sovereign nation on North American soil, but also not able to fully succeed in America without white allies, without forcing them to live up to the promise of the American ideal. The only recourse was to fight, even when Nixon let him down and baseball rejected him, or when he realized, too late, that he would be on the wrong side of history, used politically to destroy Paul Robeson, a communist but a fellow, by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949.
Robinson did not break the color line because color barriers remained while he played (The Tigers, Phillies and Red Sox hadn't integrated until after he retired; spring training facilities were not fully integrated until well after his retirement). After he died in 1972, he helped continue a fight that is still being fought. Robinson never saw a black manager in the big leagues. But this season, 70 years after signing Robinson to a minor league contract, his old team, the Dodgers, hired an African-American manager in Dave Roberts. It was Robinson's response to those barriers that still stood, and not the simple glorification of his major league debut, that gives him resonance today.
This, and not something so selfish as individual deeds and records, constitutes the true meaning of the word legacy. Things are bad in the United States, in many senses more divided than in Robinson's day because of the expectation that yesterday's battles should have been fought and won by now. But there is not a retired player in professional sports who's as politically active, alive and relevant as Robinson was during his 16 years after baseball. In his successes and failures, he remains the standard of the athlete as activist. When James Blake and Thabo Sefolosha use their power as athletes to confront police brutality, even at the risk of losing public support, they are examples of the Robinson spirit. The same is true for Carli Lloyd when she uses her voice for gender equality, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing political commentary for Time Magazine today. They channel Robinson, not the sainted one but the unsanitized version who needs to be remembered; not the concoction, the one who won some battles and was unsuccessful in others, but always knew that if he did not allow his voice to be silenced, he could never lose.