Every church has its saints, each faith tradition its martyrs, and the “church of baseball” is no exception. This Christmas season, thoughts will undoubtedly turn to baseball great Roberto Clemente on the fiftieth anniversary of his tragic death while on a mission of mercy.
In retrospect, 1972 proved pivotal in the development of baseball’s martyrology—not just with the death of Clemente on New Year’s Eve, but also of Jackie Robinson nine weeks earlier, on October 24. Each passing was unexpected and dramatic in its own way. Clemente ended the regular season on September 30, with his 3,000th hit, becoming the eleventh player and the first Latino to reach the milestone. He was thirty-eight when he and four others died, crashing into the sea off the coast of Puerto Rico in a plane overloaded with donated goods destined for survivors of a devastating earthquake in Nicaragua. Robinson, who threw out the first pitch at Game 2 of the World Series that year, died at age fifty-three, two days after the end of the series and in the twenty-fifth anniversary season of his 1947 reintegration of the major leagues.
Robinson’s career was framed in the language of martyrdom from the moment of his historic signing to a Major League contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. An acclaimed athlete at UCLA, an Army veteran, and a Negro League ballplayer, he was recruited in an elaborate scheme by Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey to break baseball’s infamous color line. Robinson was instructed by Rickey to “turn the other cheek” when confronted with physical, emotional, and verbal abuse—on the field and off. This imposed expectation was rooted in Rickey’s interpretation of the gospel of Matthew 5:38-41 as filtered through one of his favorite books, a “freely translated” English language version of Life of Christ (1923) by the Italian convert to Catholicism Giovanni Papini. At the heart of Papini’s argument was a stoic rejection of retaliation that is almost sadistic in its embrace of undeserved violence.
Even though Robinson’s cheek-turning restraint ceased with the 1949 season, Rickey perceived such a posture as a long-term strategy to be adopted by Black players in order to bring about racial inclusion. In a 1957 interview with Ebony magazine, he continued to insist that “Negro players [must] remain patient and forbearing because the problem has not been solved and I think the colored player should want to help solve it by not upsetting the bucket of milk.” The violence of this appeasement strategy, which required extraordinary sacrifice on the part of Black players, was known to Rickey, who admitted in his last book, The American Diamond: A Documentary of the Game of Baseball (1965), that “For three years (that was the agreement) this boy was to turn the other cheek. He did, day after day, until he had no other to turn. They were both beat off.”
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