Lovett H. Weems Jr. shares inspiring leadership lessons from the life of Jackie Robinson. Robinson faced challenges and adversity with courage and faith, while striving to make life better for others.
October 24, 2022, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of an outstanding baseball player and, more significantly, an extraordinary man and an icon for the ideals of justice and humanity.
Jackie Robinson was born in a Georgia sharecropper’s cabin in 1919 amid a flu pandemic, the grandson of a slave. When he was younger than two years old, his mother moved him and his siblings to California where he grew up. A star college athlete at UCLA, he served in World War II and then joined the Kansas City Monarchs baseball team of the Negro National League. In 1945, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, “seized the chance to intervene in the moral history of the nation,” as noted biographer Arnold Rampersad put it, in signing Robinson as the first Black player in modern professional baseball history.
Robinson spent the 1946 season in the minor leagues and then on April 15, 1947, made history when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It is hard for people today to appreciate the monumental impact of that day. “It is impossible to underestimate how fundamental a need Robinson fulfilled for millions of people with his public assertion of dignity,” one writer noted. An 18-year-old in Atlanta took notice. Martin Luther King Jr., would later say that Jackie Robinson “was a freedom rider before freedom rides.” A 13-year-old Hank Aaron in Alabama suddenly saw new possibilities for himself. An 8-year-old Lou Brock in Louisiana faithfully listened to any Dodger games on KMOX radio, St. Louis. Future basketball legend Bill Russell was in junior high in West Oakland and knew something big had happened.
On the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s entrance into major league baseball, a New York City councilwoman at the time, Mary Pinkett, said, “My mother didn’t go to baseball games until Jackie Robinson came to Ebbets Field. But when Jackie Robinson hit that home run, my mother forgot she was not in church, stood up and said, ‘Bless your soul!’” “The Jackie Robinson story is to Americans what the Passover story is to Jews: it must be told to every generation so that we never forget,” according to baseball historian Jules Tygiel.
Are there leadership lessons we can learn from Robinson?
Courage to endure pain for a greater purpose
It is said that Branch Rickey, knowing the abuse the first Black player would experience, asked Robinson if he had “guts enough not to fight.” Temperamentally, this was difficult for Robinson even though he did understand what was at stake. In his first 37 games, he was hit by pitches six times, the same number the National League leader had been hit during the entire previous season. The daily insults to Robinson’s humanity never completely went away. Leadership is not fair. Leaders often must choose between getting even and making a difference. Bill McKibben says that humans can destroy, but we can decide not to destroy. “We’re the only creature who can decide not to do something we’re capable of doing. That’s our superpower, even if we exercise it too rarely.” Robinson shared King’s belief that “you must be willing to suffer the anger of the opponent and yet not return anger.”
Leaders make a difference for others
Robinson told his mother, “A life is important only in the impact it has on other lives.” These are the words he chose as the epitaph for his headstone. Robinson saw his baseball achievements as a beginning of a longer and more expansive task to ensure equality for all. He saw his landmark achievement not as a victory to be celebrated so much as an opening to address innumerable injustices. He looked to his time after baseball to make life better for others. He did not dwell on his baseball accolades but on projects to strengthen others. While his life ended when he was relatively young, his wife, Rachel Robinson, worked tirelessly to keep his legacy focused on his commitment to others.
Faith amidst adversity
Robinson had a storied career even if he entered the major leagues older than most, with fewer years to play. The Dodgers were in the World Series six of his ten years on the team. He set records and won all the major awards, including entering the Baseball Hall of Fame. While he faced many challenges as a player, his greatest pain would come later.
Robinson and his son Jackie Jr. had trouble getting along. Jackie Jr. quit school, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and became involved with drugs. When he came back, he was sometimes in trouble with the law. His son then addressed his drug addiction and began helping other drug addicts. In June 1971, he had been staying up late working on a benefit jazz concert for his drug treatment center. On June 17, Jackie Robinson Jr. was found dead in an automobile at 2:30 a.m. It appeared he had fallen asleep and had run off the road. One of the saddest pictures I have ever seen was that of Jackie Robinson and his family as they walked out of the church following his son’s funeral, all hugged together, tears running down the face of a gray-haired man who was old, yet young, grieving for his son and namesake.
That was not the end of tragedy for Jackie Robinson. He had diabetes and high blood pressure, and he suffered a heart attack. He became blind in one eye, and then lost his sight almost entirely. There was talk of leg amputation. Yet, even at that time, one who saw him said, “there was no sorrow to the man, and despair was alien in the kingdom where he lived.”
Biographer Rampersad believes it was his mother’s “unshakable attachment to religion, the entirely willful way she delivered herself and her fortunes to God without becoming fatalistic or withdrawing from the world,” that nurtured in Jackie the rare and attractive quality of piety untainted by piousness.
On October 23, 1972, Robinson went to work as usual, and then his driver took him to wholesalers to pick up meat and canned goods he took to a church for distribution to the poor. The next morning, he woke up, had another heart attack, and died on the way to the hospital. He was 53 years old.
His funeral took place on October 27 at Riverside Church in New York City. Hank Aaron was there early. Bill Russell was a pallbearer. The church was filled beyond its 2,500 capacity. The police estimated 30,000 people along 125th Street, 5,000 at the mouth of the Triboro Bridge, and 2,000 at the cemetery.
“When Jackie took the field,” Jessie Jackson said in his eulogy, “something reminded us of our birthright to be free.” “His body will rest,” Jackson continued, “but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun, and the glow in the moon.”
Robinson was buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery beside his son.
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