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04/14/06 12:11 PM ET

Robinson retains his relevance

Today's generation can't dismiss him as yesterday's icon

To a generation of urban youth, the name Jackie Robinson doesn't mean much. In their here-and-now world of the Internet, hip-hop and hoops, a man who last played baseball five decades ago doesn't birth memories.

Put another way, Robinson is Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie in a world of 50 Cent or Snoop Dog; Robinson is old school in an era in which new school rules.

Yet old school is what marks baseball as different from its contemporaries. The sport holds firmly to its history and to its icons, and no matter how little urban youth might know about him, Jackie Robinson stands tall in that history.

His place in history sets him above any other man who ever played a team sport, and that fact by itself provides the lone reason people need as to why Commissioner Bud Selig decreed in 2004 that Robinson's legacy would live forever in baseball.

So each April 15 since then, Major League Baseball has honored Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947. The league holds formal ceremonies in ballparks as a salute to a trailblazer.

Yet for too many urban youth, the importance of trailblazing looks like a trifling matter.

They live in a world today where cultural mores have morphed, a world where music and the arts and dress and sports have been thrown into a Hamilton Beach blender, stirred and come out colorless.

In today's world, not as many people hold the uncompromising, stereotypical views on color that people held in the early half of the 1900s.


Then ask yourself why white youths enjoy David Chappelle and his edgy, racial humor and LeBron James and his acrobatic game as much as they enjoy Britney Spears and Peyton Manning. Think about how urban blacks embrace white rapper Eminem and singer John Mayer as one of their own.

And how about 50 Cent? Hasn't the style-setting rap artist become the standard-bearer of all things "cool"?

But for new school to amount to much, it can't throw out old school like a beaten-up pair of 19-year-old Chuck Taylor Converses. It must find a way to shoehorn old school into its new-school thinking.

And nothing they do deserves to fit into their thinking more than Jackie Robinson and his legacy.

For if one person in sports proved the value of bridging racial differences, Robinson would be that person. He showed the foolishness of letting race divide baseball -- and this country -- behind a color line.

His willingness to erase the color line in baseball provided ammunition for the legal battle that led eventually to the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that dismantled the doctrine of "separate but equal."

To carry America from 1947 to '54 took trailblazers, and Robinson might have been the only man capable of taking on that role in sports. Smart and fearless, he plowed through obstacles with a bull's determination. He refused to yield in the face of challenges that might have driven a lesser man insane.

Had Robinson failed, who knows how many more years Major League Baseball would have stayed exclusionary? How much longer would whites have viewed black ballplayers as second class?

Five years perhaps?

Ten or more years?

Robinson put his ability to play baseball on the marketplace and let whites judge it for themselves. And what they decided was that skin color had no bearing on whether a man could hit and catch a baseball.

White America didn't come to this decision straightaway. They first forced Jackie Robinson to endure slurs and slights; they forced him to openly battle teammates and other teams to prove his worth.

Through it all, the message Robinson left in his wake was this one: Judge a man on what he does and not on what he looks like. His was a message that not everybody rushed to accept.

But when confronted with indisputable evidence (watching a Hall-of-Fame career unfold on the field), everybody had no choice but to embrace Robinson's message. Society and baseball are better for it.

If not for Robinson, could baseball boast of being the melting pot it has become today? Would Dominicans like Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols be in the bigs? What about Japanese stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui? And would Henry Aaron or Barry Bonds have ever approached Babe Ruth's 714?

The hip-hop generation doesn't have to weigh such questions. It has emerged during an era in which skin color hasn't been the almighty separator of yesteryear. That's cool; that's hip; that's phat.

That's also a tribute to Jackie Robinson, who stared into the eyes of hatred and bigotry and didn't blink. His victory over racism deserves this public salute from all of us -- old school and new.

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.