We Need the Strength of Heroes

Published: April 19, 2024

By Jim Lichtman
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John Rooney/AP Photo

The Date: September 28, 1955

The Place: Yankee Stadium

The Event: Dodgers/Yankees, Game 1 of the 1955 World Series

Every baseball fan has seen the video. Every baseball fan knows the outcome . . . or do they? I’ll come back to this.

For my book, What Do You Stand For?, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spoke to me about the impact Robinson had on baseball and American culture, and his words articulate it better than I could.

“The first of many moments of consciousness is when Jackie Robinson stepped into the previously all-white baseball world of the Dodgers and changed everything.

“I think that we, in the media culture, confuse heroism. We have reduced the notion that anybody who is well known, a celebrity, is, therefore, some sort of hero. In sports, anybody who plays their game well is also a hero. And I would like to vehemently disagree. I think that heroes are exciting combinations of both strengths and weaknesses. A hero is not someone who is perfect. Indeed, what the Greeks have told us for thousands of years that the nature of a hero is the very obvious strengths and weaknesses of the people and the negotiations that go on between them, which renders our contemporary scene with far more heroes than our media would like us to believe.

“Jackie Robinson is a particularly great hero because he transcended the skill that it takes to be a Major League ballplayer and entered the realm of almost Biblical proportions when he exhibited the necessary forbearance to withstand the withering racism that took place as the first African American to join Major League Baseball.

“We had called it ‘our national pastime.’ But how could it be a national pastime when many of the best players – as it turns out, some of the greatest players ever – were, for decades under a gentleman’s agreement, excluded from playing this game and were forced to develop separate but athletically equal leagues? But it all goes back to the ability of the experiment of Robinson to be a success. That it was based on the nature of his character, his principles, his willingness to turn the other cheek, to exhibit that kind of Biblical forbearance, that turns it into one of the great dramas – not just in American history, not just in sports history, but in all of human history.”

Back to that Robinson steal.

For decades, baseball fans have argued about whether Robinson had stolen home off Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford. Catcher Yogi Berra screams at home plate umpire Bill Summers, calling Robinson OUT three times, and a slow-motion look at the video seems to bear this out. However, consider an analysis of the play by former second baseman Harold Reynolds and former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi and decide for yourself.

We need heroes like Robinson, heroes that show us how to navigate the hard choices. And when they falter—as we all do—they show us how to get up and try harder. Heroes are the standard by which we judge ourselves—our belief system, our excellence. By their courage, by their integrity, they show us the path forward.


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