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The day we celebrate is April 15, and there is good reason for that, because it was on that date in 1947 when Jack Roosevelt Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.
It was during that 5-3 victory for Dem Bums over the Boston Braves that Robinson went 0-for-3 with a walk, and handled 11 chances flawlessly at first base, and simply by showing up for work shattered the color barrier that had strangled baseball’s rosters and its conscience since before the turn of the century.
And it is right that we celebrate April 15 as we do, especially on pertinent anniversaries like Saturday, which marked 70 years to the day. It is right that all of the players in the major leagues don Robinson’s No. 42 jersey, because it really does celebrate the best of baseball, which always has seemed to run a few strides ahead of society in so many ways, Jim Crow America being just one example.
But I always think of what Ralph Branca said 20 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of that grand achievement. It was Branca — who died at 90 on Nov. 23 — who experienced his own breakout season in 1947 at age 21 by winning 21 games, completing 15 of them, pitching to a 2.67 ERA and finishing 11th in the MVP vote.
And it was Branca who, as much as any Dodgers teammate, stood steadfastly by Robinson throughout that entire season. As Rachel Robinson told me in 2007, on the 60th anniversary: “Ralph Branca was good to Jack when it wasn’t fashionable to be good to Jack.”
Branca saw it all that year. And that is why, in 1997, he paused for a moment, let the emotion clear from his throat, wiped a tear from his eye, and said:
“It’s good to commemorate what he did just by showing up. But think about what would have happened if he’d failed. Think about if he’d been a terrible player — or just an ordinary one. Think about what it had to be like to go to work every day — every single day — knowing you were going to be judged by your every move.”
Branca shook his head.
“That’s what amazed me,” Branca said. “He had to be great. And he was great.”
In many ways, Robinson’s real journey began 70 years ago Monday, on April 17, when he registered his first hit — a bunt single down the third-base line off Boston’s Glenn Elliott after eight plate appearances. Robinson’s average would be as high as .444 that year (on April 22) and fall as low as .225 (on April 30).
But his season really took off in June. On June 14, he went 2-for-7 in a doubleheader loss at St. Louis’ Sportsman Park, and he got two hits the next day, and by the time he took an 0-for-4 collar in the nightcap of a July 4 doubleheader against the Giants in Brooklyn, he had assembled a 21-game hitting streak that lifted his average to .315.
“And after that,” Branca said, “it wasn’t a question about whether he could play, or whether he belonged. It was all about just how good he could be. And what a joy to watch that was.”
Robinson finished that rookie season at .297 with 12 home runs, and he led the league with 29 steals. His greatest year would come in 1949, at age 30, when he won the MVP with a .342 average, 16 homers, 37 steals, 124 RBIs and 122 runs scored — or, if you prefer a modern slant, a slash line of .342/.432/.528 and an OPS+ of 152.
He was great when he had to be great.
And that is the real magic behind the life and the career of Jackie Robinson, who 70 years ago changed the way we look at baseball, and the way the game itself looked. He was an icon, yes. He was a hero, yet:
“But he was also a hell of a ballplayer,” Ralph Branca said in 1997. “Never lose sight of that.”
I get that Kristaps Porzingis is frustrated. It is good to see he cares. But he is a second-year player who has yet to prove he can endure 82 games. If Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose, who have been All-Stars in the league, can attend his exit interview, so can Porzingis, who has done just about everything right in his time here — but not this time. There is more to being a pro than getting paid.
I guess the bright side for Eli Manning is that the Mean Machine always could use a good quarterback, right?
Whenever baseball does install that new extra-inning rule, Dellin Betances will rule the world, because he spends much of his time already finagling out of two-on, no-out jams unscathed.
Every time I watch “Better Call Saul,” I find myself wishing that every episode were three hours long.
Whack Back at Vac
Bob Buscavage: Once again Phil Jackson will be the “Den Master” — watching the NBA playoffs on TV.
Vac: Rooting heavily against the Warriors and their entertaining style of play again, no doubt.
Bill Guterding: If Rupert Friend doesn’t win the Emmy for his portrayal of Peter Quinn on “Homeland,” there is no justice. I didn’t even recognize the character. Great acting.
Vac: Though I’ll admit I was a little mixed on the season finale, I agree: That character is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen on television.
@jmpdds: If Dallas Braden was the best choice to work Mets-Marlins on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” last week, whom did they reject?
@MikeVacc: I was watching with the sound off and STILL could tell that telecast was a fiasco just by the idiotic graphics.
Frank Giordano: It’s been about two weeks, and I’ve watched the managers hold up four fingers for the new intentional walk. MLB needs to find better ways to keep the game moving. It just doesn’t look right or feel right. What’s next, the NFL abolishing kickoffs?
Vac: Every time I see a replay conference that last longer than “The Chevy Chase Show,” I think about how lucky we are to not have to ever witness another intentional walk.