Jackie Robinson lived only a decade as a Hall of Famer. He suffered from diabetes and died of a heart attack at age 53, in 1972. Robinson had integrated the major leagues a quarter-century before, and he never stopped striving for social justice.
“I marvel at how much this man did in such a short period of time,” said Doug Glanville, a former major league outfielder and an ESPN analyst, who gave his son the middle name Robinson. “He lived, like, five lifetimes. He was in his 50s when he passed away, and you sit there and go, ‘How in the world did he do all this? How did he take all this on?’”
Glanville teaches a class on sports and society at the University of Connecticut and assigns students a letter Robinson wrote to Martin Luther King Jr., in 1960, urging King to help quell the infighting between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. Robinson co-founded a Black-owned bank in Harlem, served as a columnist for New York newspapers and wrote in his autobiography that he could not stand and sing the national anthem.
His contributions, in other words, went much deeper than suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. As Major League Baseball celebrates the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, his legacy is getting a thorough reexamination at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
The Hall will announce Friday that it has begun a two-year project to create a permanent exhibit on Black baseball. This will replace the current one — “Ideals and Injustices” — that was installed in 1997 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut.
“We know that there’s a greater depth to these stories that probably wasn’t told in the past, including more Black perspectives and interpretations,” said Josh Rawitch, president of the Hall of Fame.
“If you think about the research that’s been done and the way that society now understands the racism that existed both before and since Jackie Robinson, those are all really important things that in some ways are tackled in the current exhibit but in other ways probably not done to the extent that they can be.”
The advisory board for the project will include several former players — Glanville, Adam Jones, Dave Stewart and Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin and Dave Winfield — as well as historians and representatives from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, and the Players Alliance, a nonprofit made up of current and former players. Rawitch has also spoken with current players, like Dee Strange-Gordon of the Washington Nationals, who could be involved.
The Hall — located in a mostly white community and with a mostly white staff — has also created a new, full-time position for someone to help coordinate the project from a different perspective.
“We have to be able to tell the story authentically,” Rawitch said. “So, with that, we are searching for a curator who’s lived the experience either through their race, through their studies or through their understanding of what it was like to experience what these players experienced.”
Winfield pointed out that the Hall of Fame had inducted many more Black players and officials since 1997 — more than three dozen, including pioneers like Bud Fowler, Minnie Minoso and Buck O’Neil in this year’s class — and said it was time for a fresh look.
“The biggest thing is that so much more history has been researched, revealed, unearthed — and this is American history,” Winfield said. “Of course it’s baseball history, but baseball is an integral part of America. You hear many times now that people are trying to erase or whitewash history, and that’s not good. It’s very important that worthy people can take their place and be recognized.”
MLB officially recognized the Negro leagues as major leagues in late 2020, and the Hall has grappled with how to acknowledge the efforts by some of its inductees to uphold the color line. It has kept up all of the plaques, choosing context over erasure: A sign near the gallery entryway now reminds visitors that “enshrinement reflects the perspective of the voters at the time of election.” The museum and the library, the sign adds, provide deeper analysis — the shining and the shameful — of the inductees’ careers.
Such accounting will be essential to the new exhibit, and with more than 150 years of history to review it is a massive undertaking. Glanville said he preferred the term exploratory to advisory, because there is so much still to learn about the Black experience in baseball, so much that continues to evolve.
“There’s still a common thread, even in 2022,” Glanville said. “Pioneering efforts, whether it’s Ketanji Jackson, whatever — there’s a lot of barbed wire, there’s a lot of pain, there’s a lot of familiarity to some of the hurdles that Robinson faced.
“And at the same time, there’s a lot to celebrate, a lot of hope. Because when you are a first and you are opening certain doors, you see possibilities. You see the chance to bring everybody with you through the best of what we profess to celebrate — at least foundationally — of equality and what our country was founded on.”
Rawitch said the exhibit would have a digital and traveling component for those who cannot get to Cooperstown. It will highlight not just hardship, as Glanville suggested, but also the ways that the Black experience has enriched and enlivened baseball – a useful reminder as the sport seeks to increase Black participation numbers in the majors that have fallen sharply since their peak in the 1980s.
That was Winfield’s prime, and he said he hopes the display will feature video of stars like Griffey and Bo Jackson — and, yes, himself — climbing walls that seemed unscalable, of Rickey Henderson stealing bases at rates unheard-of today, of Dave Parker rounding the bases with a flair all his own.
“Speed, style, power – just a unique style of play,” Winfield said. “You tell people what a lot of these players accomplished, it’s almost incomprehensible.”
That is the Hall of Fame’s mission, reflected again in its newest project: to make the incomprehensible come to life, to contextualize and glorify the game-changers. Jackie Robinson is just one of many.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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