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Time to tune in for the real America’s team

October 13, 2018

This is the perfect time to celebrate America’s team, even if you don’t know a ringing double from a doorbell.

It’s true. No matter what you might have heard or read, a big-league baseball club really is America’s team.

Similar claims by professional football squads in Dallas, Green Bay, Wis., and suburban Boston are not worthy of serious discussion. The Pittsburgh Steelers are America’s leading football team in terms of allegiance from one generation to the next.

But as much as I love the Steelers, the Los Angeles Dodgers reign as America’s team. No other sports organization is even close in terms of historical importance.

It was the Dodgers who stood up to a nation in 1947 by desegregating Major League Baseball. Then based in Brooklyn, the Dodgers were bold when America needed an example to live by.

In that era, baseball was the most prominent team sport and all of the big-league teams were owned by white men. Most were too bigoted or too afraid to hire a black player.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had considered signing a hometown star named Josh Gibson, perhaps the best player in the talent-rich Negro Leagues. The Pirates balked, afraid of a backlash from white customers.

Later, the Boston Red Sox looked at Jackie Robinson, an excellent all-around athlete and an emerging talent in the Negro Leagues. But the Boston team stayed true to its vanilla business model, passing on Robinson.

Not the Dodgers. They hired Robinson, giving him a one-year apprenticeship with their top minor-league club in Montreal before bringing him up to the big leagues in 1947.

This was a step forward in race relations. Lynchings still occurred in America, and police weren’t inclined to investigate them. Segregated schools were both common and legal. Voting was a constitutional right, but many jurisdictions blocked black people from the polls with violence or impossible tests.

Even the military was segregated when the Dodgers hired Robinson. Not until 1948 did President Harry Truman issue the order establishing equal opportunity in the armed forces. It took another six years before the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the precedent that had allowed school segregation.

From the standpoint of pure talent on the field, Robinson wasn’t the Dodgers’ first choice to pioneer integration.

Their scouts believed Don Newcombe was a better prospect. But Newcombe was just 19 when the Dodgers decided to end the color barrier. Team owners believed he was too young to handle the venom that white crowds and white teams would unleash on a black player.

Robinson had gone to UCLA and served in the segregated Army, where he was court-martialed. He had refused to move to the back of a bus at an Army post in Texas.

A panel of judges acquitted him. Some attributed the favorable ruling to Robinson’s prominence as a collegiate athlete.

Many sportswriters saw Robinson’s signing by the Dodgers as social engineering. They doubted he could play at the highest level.

Others feared that he could. Ben Chapman, manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, browbeat Robinson and encouraged his charges to do the same. Chapman’s conduct was so ugly that the National League eventually forced him to stop.

According to mythology instigated by the sports editor of the old New York Herald Tribune, the St. Louis Cardinals planned a strike to protest Robinson’s presence in the big leagues. Members of the Cardinals said the story was a lie. Even so, many believe Cardinals’ outfielder Enos Slaughter intentionally spiked Robinson on what began as a routine play at first base.

Robinson came close to breaking, especially on the first day that Chapman degraded him, inning after inning. Robinson prevailed, becoming the first rookie of the year in 1947, most valuable player in the National League in 1949 and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

His is one of the great stories not only in sports but in lessening prejudice.

Robinson died young, at 53. The Dodgers live on, now based on the coast opposite of where he changed the world.

They begin the National League Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday night. With Robinson in mind, it’s easy to see that sports can be bigger than a game — or even all the games put together.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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