Faster Than You Can Say Jackie Robinson

by Rabbi David Zaslow, dedicated to Richard Seidman
December, 2006

I was born December 23, 1947 in the midst of an historic snowstorm that immobilized New York City, and at the exact midpoint between three great events: when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, when my teacher Reb Zalman received rabbinic ordination from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway, and when Israel was reborn as a nation. I was raised in the final decade of the Brooklyn Dodgers before Walter O’Malley devestated a generation of fans by moving our beloved team to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. This single fact, as unimportant as it may seem in the history of the cosmos, has had a profound impact on my life.

As a kid the sense of betrayal I experienced, along with millions of other fans, remains one of mythic traumas of my childhood. When my parents separated in 1965 it really hurt, but somehow the loss of the Dodgers years before had prepared me for disappointments that would come later in my life.

Just ask anyone who lived in Brooklyn in those years what the sense of loss was like when the Dodger’s moved (we still say the mourner’s kaddish every spring). Over the years I’ve gotten over my childhood hurts and disappointments, but I still dream about the return of the Dodger’s to Brooklyn. My Christian friends speak about the second coming of the messiah. Me? I half kiddingly tell my Christian friends that I’m waiting for the return of Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn. In fact, whenever I teach about Jewish messianic expectations and prophetic fulfillment, I speak about the return of the Dodger’s and the rebuilding of Ebbets Field as proof that the Messiah will have arrived. Religious eschatology and our hopes for the Brooklyn Dodgers are really not so different.

I remember the endless comparisons that we New York kids used to make between teams like the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Cardinals. But the most contentious battles would erupt when we compared individual players on the Dodgers and our arch rival – the dreaded, indefatigable, incredible New York Yankees. Endless debates comparing batting averages, and arguments about the relative greatness of pitchers, first basemen, outfielders, and short-stops. It’s true, we Dodgers never had the likes of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but the Yankees never had Jackie Robinson. Jackie was the first of all firsts, the Moses who led the people out of the Egypt of racism, and every one in Brooklyn knew it – whether they knew it or not. Jewish, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Black kids – we all shared Jackie Robinson. He represented all of us – he was the little guy, the immigrant, the outsider, the bum of bums. He was Brooklyn, not Manhattan.

Truth be told, there is no way to compare Robinson to DiMaggio – my two childhood heroes just don’t compare. They both played the same game, but they were simply two one-of-a-kind players. Statistics can’t tell you who they really were. Certainly batting averages will never tell you the real story behind Jackie Robinson and what he did for all Americans, of every color. When a single drop of Messiah’s anointing oil landed upon only one baseball player, it landed on Jackie Robinson. Ruth was the Babe and DiMaggio was the Clipper, but no one was Jackie Robinson – no one ever will be.

An aside: Besides a few million of us in Brooklyn (and half the kids on Staten Island and in Queens) guess who were the saddest people on earth to see the Dodgers leave Brooklyn? Yankee fans! They won’t admit it, but it’s true. In the world of baseball, rivalry runs deep but respect runs deeper.

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