This week, in all corners of media - both mainstream and alternative - calls have howled about the strategies of Barack Obama. After a debate performance that left some perplexed, I reflected about President Obama, his legacy, his strategy, and how he's most like the civil rights hero I studied in college. Barack Obama shares many similarities with Jackie Robinson. He's quiet, powerful, and often questioned. Most of all, he's the right man in the right place at the right time.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson re-broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, becoming the first black man to play at the game's highest levels in the modern era. To those who haven't studied Robinson, he must seem like a lucky guy who came along at the right time. Robinson, though, was an intentional choice. When Brooklyn General Manager Branch Rickey targeted Robinson, he searched for a man with recognizable talent, unshakable courage, and above all, unrelenting composure.
You see, Robinson wasn't the first black player qualified to play on the grandest stage. He wasn't even the best player of his era. Before there was a Robinson, there were guys like Josh Gibson - the "Black Babe Ruth" - and Oscar Charleston, who ESPN writer David Schoenfield called "Willie Mays before Willie Mays." During the 1930s, pitcher Satchel Paige dominated hitters like no pitcher had in baseball history. In 1945, Robinson shared a Kansas City Monarchs bench with Hilton Smith, a 2001 Hall of Fame inductee who was known as one of the best hitters and pitchers in all of baseball. Robinson wasn't like many of these men. While others were flashy, his game was more grit than glamor. In fact, some historians argue that Robinson rated baseball as his third favorite sport.
A four-sport star at UCLA, Robinson's passion was football. He also won the NCAA's long jump championship and played guard on the UCLA basketball team. In football, though, Robinson was a shifty and explosive playmaker, leading the league in punt return average. He played one full season of baseball for UCLA, where he batted below .100. During that time, though, baseball was the national game, drawing its competition more from boxing than football or basketball. Robinson took to baseball because it gave him the best chance of making a living. Baseball took to Robinson because it needed both his novelty and his talent.
A junior lieutenant in World War II, Robinson was what some might call a stoic. This quality was attractive to Branch Rickey, who noticed Robinson in his single season as a Negro League player. Robinson's first meeting with Rickey took three hours and culminated in a now-famous exchange. When Robinson asked Rickey whether he was looking for a Negro who wouldn't fight back, Rickey answered, "I need a player who has the guts not to fight back."
Rickey understood what he and Robinson were up against. There would be strong opposition - both overt and covert - that might bring Robinson down. In fact, Jim Crow laws meant that Robinson couldn't stay or eat with his teammates during spring training. When actual games started, Robinson would endure verbal harassment and physical intimidation from fans and opposing players alike. The St. Louis Cardinals even threatened to strike if Robinson was allowed to play.
Then, something happened. Robinson stepped on the field. Slowly but surely, his teammates came to see him as an equal on the diamond. Though tension continued in the clubhouse, Dodgers management and some brave teammates took a stand for Robinson. As a first baseman, Robinson led the NL in stolen bases and got on base nearly four times out of every ten. He sparked the Dodgers and won the NL Rookie of the Year. He wasn't spectacular, as he hit only twelve home runs. But Robinson had a knack for beating out hits and taking extra bases. He slid hard and broke up double plays. He did the dirty work and this earned the respect of the blue collar Brooklyn fan base.
More importantly, Robinson brought his stoicism to the field. He was the right man in the right city. Buoyed by the support of the extraordinarily loyal Dodger fanbase and the thousands of black fans that often showed up to watch him play, Robinson held steady in the face of criticism. He kept his promise to Rickey that he wouldn't fight back, even though many of his teammates and fans wanted to see more fire. Rickey and Robinson understood that the man's career couldn't be about his race. It had to be about his baseball talent and it had to be about helping the Dodgers win baseball games. If he could do that, other general managers would see the upside in black players and they'd be forced to tap the deep talent pools in the Negro Leagues.
It didn't take Robinson long to dominate baseball. In 1949, he hit well over .300, leading the league in both average and steals. He was second in the NL in both slugging percentage and RBI. He earned the MVP and the Dodgers won the pennant. By this point, other black players had reached the Major Leagues, including American League barrier breaker Larry Doby. Rickey also gave Robinson permission to fight back in 1949, but Jackie rarely took that opportunity. It just wasn't his style. Though he played with fire, he channeled his energy to the base paths. It seemed as if Robinson recognized the gravity of his duty. His legacy was more than just his. His legacy also shaped the future for black players across the country. If he indulged his temper, he would be shouted down as an angry man and stereotypes would be cemented.
Like Robinson, the President has inherited a sensitive and important opportunity. And like Robinson, he seems to understand the long game. On Wednesday night when the President seemingly stood down in the face of an aggressive and untruthful attack from Mitt Romney, he was just doing what he's done all along. Though he might have lost in the interim, and though his fans and followers desperately wanted a rattlesnake, the President had other plans in mind.
Barack Obama is not a screaming, piercing politician. His love and his passion is in motivating people. He speaks at a higher level, connecting with listeners at the core. Some might call this quality high-mindedness. Others might call it Ivy League elitism. Whatever you call it, recognize that it's Barack Obama's version of base path determination. Jackie Robinson recognized that his only chance was to avoid confrontation, opting instead for a focused, determined approach. Though the President is not exposed to the overt and live racial wire that Robinson had to maneuver, he still faces racial opposition. He still governs a country where an unfortunate percentage of the population is waiting for the first misstep of the first black president. More than just a policy blunder, these people are anticipating - even hoping for - a moment where the president confirms every suspicion they hold over an entire race of people.
More than that, the President recognizes that his ability to effectively govern relies largely on the political legitimacy that he's earned over the last decade. Just as Robinson earned the respect of teammates and fans by focusing all of his energy on winning baseball games, the President has earned the respect of democratic backers by maintaining an unwavering focus on the American ideal as he sees it. Though some might argue that he could most effectively advance that ideal by sparring directly with Romney, the President chooses a different path. The President chooses to allow others to shout down the lies of Mitt Romney and the racial opposition of the right wing as a whole. Jackie Robinson did this in his first season as a Dodger.
Wildly popular manager Leo Durocher said this to Dodger teammates in April of 1947:
"I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin' zebra. I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."Future Hall-of-Famer and team leader Pee Wee Reese said:
"You can hate a man for many reasons. Color is not one of them."Later in his career, Reese would appear publicly with Robinson in an effort to deflect racial harassment on road trips.
Sports Illustrated's Richard Rothschild wrote an article about Jackie Robinson in which he noted:
The Dodgers GM sensed he had a man whose intellect, maturity and character would enable him to pass through what Jesse Jackson years later described as "dangers seen and unseen."In the President, we have a man whose intellect, maturity, and character surpass that of nearly every politician I have seen in my lifetime. Over the course of three and a half years, he has navigated often murky and difficult waters associated with the Presidency. Constantly faced with questions about everything from his religion to his place of birth, the President has kept his head down on the way to second base. Called the "food stamp president" and "lazy," he has flown out of the box, charging toward a triple. Strangely accused of having a "certain rhythm," the President has never once lashed out at an opponent, opting instead for the quiet resilience that honors the office. And like Jackie Robinson before him, he's on a mission much bigger than himself and much bigger than any single moment.