“I’m looking for a ball player with guts enough to not fight back.” — Branch Rickey

Despite there not being a Major League Baseball season right now, this past Wednesday, April 15, was still recognized as Jackie Robinson Day. Digging through my book bin, the one that made it out here to Devils Lake with me, I picked up Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Robinson. I became familiar with Rampersad for his mega two volume tome on Langston Hughes so when I saw that Rampersad wrote one on Robinson, it was an immediate purchase. (I have no idea when I actually did buy it.)

A passage that is relative to this week’s commentary was written in Chapter 6 of the biography, a chapter entitled ‘A Monarch in the Negro Leagues.’

Caught up now in the drama, Rickey stripped off his coat and enacted out a variety of parts that portrayed examples of an offended Jim Crow. Now he was a white hotel clerk rudely refusing Jack accommodations; now a supercilious white waiter  in a restaurant; now a brutish railroad conductor. He became a foul-mouthed opponent, Jack recalled, talking about “my race, my parents, in language that was almost unendurable.” Now he was a vengeful base runner, vindictive spikes flashing in the sun, sliding into Jack’s black flesh — “How do you like that, nigger boy?” At one point, he swung his pudgy fist at Jack’s head. Above all, he insisted, Jack could not strike back.

It is well documented that the reason why Robinson was chosen to integrate the all-white MLB was more for his moral compass than his actual baseball skill. There were others in the Negro Leagues, some like Robinson’s teammate in Kansas City Leroy Paige, better known as Satchel (he got that nickname for his childhood work as a bag boy at the train station) who were better at the game than Robinson but wasn’t first because Robinson would’ve been able to stay silent when the racial dogs came after him.

Last week, while participating in an iRacing event, Kyle Larson “blurted out” the N-word which caused him to be fired from Chip Ganassi Racing. Fast forward to Thursday, one day after Robinson Day, Bubba Wallace, the lone black driver in NASCAR, released a statement which reads in part:

“As much as I didn’t want to be involved, I was from the very beginning. There is a part of my background and culture that feels attacked and hurt, and the other part feels confused and angry. Let’s start off with the word. It’s NOT just a word. There is a ton of negative meaning behind the word. … The word brings many terrible memories for people and families and brings them back to a time that WE as a community and human race have tried our hardest to get away from. … It hurts to see the African American community immediately throw NASCAR under the bus with the ‘I’m not shocked, it’s NASCAR.’

“As an athlete, we immediately become representative of something bigger than ourselves. We are ambassadors for our partners, our race teams, crews, families and the sanctioning body.”

The correlation? Silence, sometimes, is the best option.

Larson’s comment wasn’t directed at Wallace specifically. Wallace admitted himself that he didn’t want to get involved but Larson called him after he said it. And because of that, Wallace found it necessary to issue a statement, not as a black man but as a company man. The statement was everything you’ll expect as a representative of NASCAR, which he also admitted by saying that he’s bigger than himself because he’s an athlete. Even Robinson understood this.

Robinson sat, transfixed but also stirred. “I had to do it for several reasons,” he now knew, wrote Rampersad. “For black youth, for my mother, for Rae, for myself. I had already begun to feel I had to do it for Branch Rickey.”

But when you become representative of something larger than yourself, there’s a chance you lose yourself in the process. Wallace, who just a week prior to Larson’s mouth getting him in trouble lost sponsors for “rage-quitting.” Wallace was better off remaining silent than giving a PR statement. It will be disingenuous of me to say that Wallace wasn’t sincere — I don’t know him personally. But when you have to put company before self, before the skin complexion you’re in, it’s best to stay quiet.

The black delegation gets it — but we just don’t want to hear it anymore.

I can be reached at charris@devilslakejournal.com.