George Will

After the opening two games against the Boston Braves, the Dodgers played the Giants at the Polo Grounds in Harlem. The president of the National League, fearing excessive enthusiasm, suggested that Robinson should develop a sprained ankle. He did not, and the crowds were large, dressed as if for church -- men in suits and hats, women in dresses -- and decorous. Soon a commentator wrote, "Like plastics and penicillin, it seems like Jackie is here to stay."

The Dodgers were not. Ebbets Field's turnstiles clicked 1.8 million times in 1947, more than they ever had before or would again. But in 1947, in a Long Island potato field, Levittown was founded, offering mass-produced low-cost housing emblematic of postwar suburbanization. Dodger fans were moving east on the island. After the 1957 season, the Dodgers moved west.

Only 25,623 fans went to the game on April 15, 1947 -- 4,000 fewer than on opening day 1946 and 6,000 fewer than the ballpark's capacity. Perhaps some white fans were wary of being with so many blacks. Usually blacks were no more than 10 percent of Dodger crowds but on this day they may have been 60 percent.

By 1956, Robinson's last season, he had lost his second base position to Jim Gilliam, a black man. Robinson died of diabetes-related illnesses in 1972, at 53, the same age Babe Ruth was when he died. Ruth reshaped baseball; Robinson's life still reverberates through all of American life. As Martin Luther King Jr., who was 18 in 1947, was to say, Robinson was "a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."

"Robinson," writes Eig, "showed black Americans what was possible. He showed white Americans what was inevitable." By the end of the 1947 season, America's future was unfolding by democracy's dialectic of improvement. Robinson changed sensibilities, which led to changed laws, which in turn accelerated changes in sensibilities.

Jack Roosevelt Robinson's middle name was homage to the president who said "speak softly and carry a big stick." Robinson's deeds spoke loudly. His stick weighed 34 ounces, which was enough.

George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
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