15 April 2012

Baseball Turns 65 Today!

On 15 April 1947, Jackie Robinson took to the diamond in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field.  Robinson did not get a hit that day, but the Dodgers beat the Boston Braves 5-3 (click here for the box score).  What made that day special 65 years ago is that Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball.  Robinson became the first black man to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century.  There are many, many books you can read about how the courageous Brooklyn general manager, Branch Rickey, selected the even-more-courageous Robinson to bring forth enlightenment to a racist sports world.  I'll not retell that story, but offer the perspective of a 41-year-old physicist who loves baseball.

Born in 1970, I grew up in love with baseball.  Baseball was fully integrated on the field, but not so much in management.  Color didn't mean much to be when I watched baseball and when I played the game as a child.  I etched E-5 on my glove just like Brooks Robinson did; I flapped my elbow like Joe Morgan.  Greatness appealed to me and I never thought about a great "white" player or a great "black" player, just a great "baseball" player.

I also relished baseball history.  Somehow baseball stats just stuck in my head, even to this day.  I collected baseball cards, got autographs, and read book after book on what seemed the perfect game to me.  I certainly read about the Negro Leagues, but like everything that happens to us before we are born, the idea of blacks having their own league because they couldn't play with whites was an abstraction for me.  I felt sick over the idea that great black players weren't allowed to compete in the Major Leagues, but that feeling arose only because of words I read in a book.

So what did I do as a geeky baseball-playing kid?  I wondered if Babe Ruth could have hit 60 homers in 1927 if, every now and then, he had to face a cocky 21-year-old Satchel Paige.  Would Lefty Grove have gone 31-4 in 1931 if, every now and then, he had to look over to first base and see a 28-year-old Cool Papa Bell in the prime of his career ready to take off for second at the first hint that Grove was about to deliver his pitch?  Both Jimmie Foxx (in 1932) and Hank Greenberg (in 1938) challenged the great Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.  Imagine Josh Gibson playing his age 18 to age 27 seasons in the hitter-friendly 1930s.  Would Gibson have broken Ruth's record?

We'll never know the answers to those questions (and many more) that floated around in my young head.  But look at what we do know.  Science is about acquiring data and evidence.  Jackie Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and the National League MVP award two years later.  When the Hall of Fame voted in Robinson and Bob Feller in 1962, affirmative action played no role in the former's vote total.  If Feller's fastball could make a Major League hitter flinch, imagine what seeing Jackie Robinson dance back and forth on second base did to Major League pitchers.  The data and evidence were there in abundance.  Not only did Jackie Robinson belong in the Major Leagues, so did his peers in the Negro Leagues.

Think about where science has taken us in the past 65 years.  The work Watson and Crick did in the early 1950s on DNA gave us biochemical understanding of who we are.  I've always loved it that Watson and Crick were awarded their Nobel Prize in 1962 -- the same year as Jackie Robinson's election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Science does not think of people as divided into "tribes" and "races."  We are all part of a species of primates called homo sapiens.  No matter our gender, race, or country of origin, variations in our collective DNA are incredibly tiny compared to other animals (click here for an interesting research paper on this topic).

Our biochemical understanding of ourselves couples quite well to the evolutionary ideas put forth by Darwin in 1859.  Researchers across many scientific disciplines have provided enormous amounts of data and evidence to give us an understanding of how we got here.  We know, for example, that our human origins date back about 200,000 years in Africa, meaning that we are all Africans.  Think about how much science and reason enlighten us.  Push credulity, hatred, and ignorance aside, then think about how cool it is that you and I share common ancestors with Jackie Robinson.  Now that is something to celebrate!

Finally, ponder how short a time length 65 years is.  Nearly 13% of the more than 313 million people in the US are at least 65 years old.  About 1 in 8 people in the US were alive when Jackie Robinson took the field on that pioneering day 65 years ago.  About 9% of our population is at least 70 years old, meaning that about 1 in 11 people probably have memories of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line.  If you know someone of that advanced age, talk to him or her today about Jackie Robinson.  We lose living witnesses to history every year.  Let's keep their stories alive.

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