Opinion: A True 'Sports Hero,' Jackie Robinson At 100 January 31, 2019 will mark 100 years since the birth of baseball legend Jackie Robinson.

Opinion: A True 'Sports Hero,' Jackie Robinson At 100

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I try not to say sports hero. An athlete may be electrifying and adored and do much for their communities, but real heroes are people who run into burning buildings to save lives. Heroes are people who enrich the lives of others and sometimes move along history. There is one athlete who has to be called a hero. Jackie Robinson was born 100 years ago next week, January 31, 1919, in the small, segregated town of Cairo, Ga., the youngest of five children. A year later, his father left, and the Robinsons moved to Southern California where Jackie Robinson became one of the most celebrated young athletes in America.

He became Lieutenant Robinson in the segregated U.S. Army during World War II but was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus on the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas. Jackie Robinson was proudly unapologetic and was acquitted. As he said many times, I am not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me.

He began to play baseball in the old Negro Leagues after the war. There were many talented stars there, like Larry Doby and Satchel Paige, who could and would eventually be signed. But Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, foresaw that the first African-American player in Major League Baseball would also be the star of a daily national drama. I had to get a man who could carry the burden, said Mr. Rickey. I needed a man to carry the badge of martyrdom. He signed Jackie Robinson.

He broke into the big leagues in 1947. Most Americans saw baseball then in black and white. Bigots in the stands hurled curses and sometimes bottles and threats. Some opposing players slid into him with their spikes. Some opposing pitchers threw at his head. Jackie Robinson played calmly, nobly and superbly under that profane hail.

When civil rights marchers of the 1960s walked across a bridge in Selma or the streets in Birmingham through a blizzard of police sticks, snarling dogs and water cannons, they could hold in their minds the image of Jackie Robinson walking brave and unbowed to home plate.

Jackie Robinson was an athlete, not Martin Luther King in baseball stripes, but his own story galvanized his life. And when he left baseball, he became an activist for integration and justice. As President Barack Obama said, there's a direct line between Jackie Robinson and me. The history Jackie Robinson made helped make America better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DID YOU SEE JACKIE ROBINSON HIT THAT BALL?")

NATALIE COLE: (Singing) Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball? It went zooming across the left field wall.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Yeah, boy.

COLE: (Singing) Yeah, yeah, Jackie hit that ball. He swung his bat.

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