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Jackie Robinson, My Grandmother and Me

by George Paz Martin

Recently, news headlines commemorated Jackie Robinson’s 60th anniversary of breaking the racial barrier in major league baseball. To America generally, Jackie Robinson’s legend was not only being the first Negro to integrate major league sports but also of being one of the greatest baseball players ever.

To Negroes at that time, Jackie Robinson was very special… our own national hero, our own colored champion. We, descendents of slaves, were called Negroes or Coloreds then, Black later, and African Americans today.

Life was hard for Negroes in racist America with few reasons to celebrate our own people. Our last heroes were World War II era champions – Jesse Owens of the University of Illinois who won Olympic gold medals in track in front of Adolph Hitler; and Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, who won the World Heavy Weight Boxing Title from the German, Max Schmeling – making them America’s heroes too.

After World War II, baseball was America’s game. It was played in every community in our country, and the very best players ultimately became professionals. Due to racism America was segregated, and Negro professionals often had their own organizations. For example, Negro doctors formed the National Medical Association because they were excluded from the “white only” American Medical Association.

The best Negro players formed the Negro Baseball Leagues, playing in second-class stadiums to mainly colored baseball fans for little pay. Many of the Negro Baseball League stars, like Satchel Page, could certainly have starred in major league baseball were it not for segregation.

Most people knew that Jackie Robinson was the first Negro to break the color barrier. Most Negroes were very proud because he also was a star and a role model regardless of the pressure and racial taunting on and off the field. It was his demeanor in handling the racism and being a champion for colored people that made him so important to my grandmother, Odessa Martin.

For me, my grandmother epitomizes Negroes of the post World War II era. She took me to St. Mark’s African Methodist Church on 4th and Center St. where she often volunteered. Fearful of racism, she told me her childhood stories from the South and current news of the Klu Klux Klan. She mailed five dollars to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company every month to pay for her funeral when she died, so as not to be a burden for the family. She earned her money by cleaning houses and helping raise the children of affluent white families in Whitefish Bay and Wauwatosa.

I learned the Golden Rule on her knee, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I remember her teaching me, “If you can’t say anything good about somebody, then don’t say anything at all,” or “Don’t worry about what other people say or do, worry about George Martin.” My grandmother was a proud member of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Royal Order of the Elks on 3rd and Center St. She “made me” enter their 4th of July Essay Contest while I was in grade school at St. Boniface on 11th and Clark Streets. The essay subject of “Why We Should Vote” was important to her because of the rights that Negroes had been denied. My essay won and then Alderwoman Vel Phillips presented me the award as my grandmother lovingly watched.

My grandmother loved Jackie Robinson. He meant so much to Negroes, not only as one of the best players in previously segregated major league baseball; but also as a national role model. He was a four-year letterman at UCLA and an Army Lieutenant in World War II. He was mild mannered, humble and showed exemplary behavior while playing in Canada for Montreal before coming home to America and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

We all read about his achievements in the sports sections of the daily newspapers across the country. Negroes followed Jackie Robinson in the colorful pages of our Ebony and Jet magazines that we bought at the news stand on 3rd and Wisconsin Ave.

Many Negroes like my grandmother, who previously had no interest in baseball, now listened on the radio and flocked to see Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers when they came to their local major league ballpark. It felt so good to cheer for and celebrate your champion, another Negro.

Jackie Robinson not only brought a good glove and bat to America’s game, but he took base running to a new dimension with his speed and cunning, becoming “King of the Base Paths.” Jackie Robinson, the first Negro in major league baseball, became its “Most Valuable Player,” and won hearts all across America.

My grandmother grew up listening to the radio for entertainment , especially programs from Radio City Music Hall in New York City. When possible, Odessa would tune the radio to Dodgers’ games to cheer Jackie, often while she was on her knees scrubbing someone else’s floors for minimal pay.

My grandmother loved me and wanted me to see one of the most important people in her lifetime. I’ll never forget the day that she took me to see Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers play the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

On a cool, cloudy summer morning, we left my house on East Garfield and took the Holton Street bus downtown to the Greyhound Station, then at 2nd and Michigan Streets. As a first grader at Palmer Street School, I was so excited about the trip to Chicago. My grandmother bought me chocolate milk, which I remember was so cold that it made me shiver on the three-hour bus ride.

It was a beautiful summer day by the time we got to Wrigley Field. We were both astounded by the biggest building and the most people that we had ever seen. I held my grandmother’s hand tightly as we moved through the crowd trying to find our seats.

It was also the first time my grandmother had been to a major league baseball game. Negroes didn’t really go to these games until Jackie Robinson played, and now we were here, my grandmother and me.

Stadium ushers directed us around the huge building and down a short tunnel. As we walked out of the tunnel, we were in the heart of the ballpark right behind home plate with the manicured infield and shimmering green outfield, surrounded by tens of thousands of people in the tall grandstand behind us and down the base lines to right and left field connecting in the outfield bleachers.

As we stood awestruck, a nearby usher asked us if we were in the right section, implying that we couldn’t afford to be there. This upset my Grandmother Odessa and she grabbed my hand, nervously shaking. She gave him our tickets and with a quivering voice told him politely but very firmly that she had paid for the best seats so that we could see Jackie Robinson. The usher then bowed to her and proceeded to lead us to the first row, behind home plate on the first base side, to our two seats, the best seats in the ballpark.

Looking back, I would have expected that our tickets would have been for seats in the bleachers because of the cost. I often wonder how long my grandmother scrubbed floors to pay for those tickets. My grandmother loved Jackie Robinson and me.

We watched batting practice and when Jackie Robinson approached the batter’s box, the fans gave him a thunderous applause. Watching him practice, I studied him swing his bat level, roll his wrists, make contact with the ball, follow through level and maintain good balance. Later, I was inspired to imitate his technique as I played ball as a kid at the Boy’s Club near 15th and Center Streets and as an East Town Bat at Kern Park on Humboldt and Keefe Avenue.

During the game, I remember seeing Jackie hit the ball and immediately blur past us with unbelievable speed to first base. As the Cubs pitched to the next Dodger batter, all of a sudden Jackie rocketed down the base path and stole second base.

Everyone in Wrigley Field, including Cubs and Dodgers fans, and Negroes across the country listening to their radios, gave him a standing ovation. My Grandmother Odessa and I were there behind home plate cheering our champion and looking at him standing tall on second base with a humble smile on his face.

Jackie Robinson, my grandmother and me.

Riverwest Currents online edition – May, 2007