Before Martin Luther King Jr. marched in Alabama and on the Washington mall, Jackie Robinson marched around the bases on major league ball fields. King was 18 years old when Robinson broke the modern color barrier in America's pastime. Robinson's arrival in baseball gave the civil rights movement one of its biggest bats with which it could knock down segregation and racism. King appreciated what Robinson endured so that others could follow him.
Curt Flood, shown above putting the finishing touches on an astounding portait of King, was one who followed. Flood, a star with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s, later stood up for himself — and ballplayers of every color — by challenging baseball's reserve clause. Robinson, King and Flood are not linked in history by mere coincidences.
Via Sports Illustrated, here's what King said about Robinson's impact on civil rights:
[A]s Robinson's career was winding down with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson started to speak out for civil rights. Many people in the press and civil rights community discouraged Robinson from taking this step, worried it would tarnish his image, and even argued that as an athlete Robinson had no vocal place in the struggle. But King, by then the movement's undisputed leader, said that Robinson had every right to speak because he was "... a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."
An emboldened Robinson toured the south to speak for civil rights and became the most requested speaker on the circuit: more requested than even Dr. King. He would end every speech the same way, saying, "If I had to choose tomorrow between the Baseball Hall of Fame and full citizenship for my people I would choose full citizenship time and again."
Back up a second to that MLK painting by Curt Flood. Man, that's good.
MLB.com's Richard Justice has more about King, who wasn't afraid to tell pioneering ballplayers like Don Newcombe what they meant to him and the greater good :
A few weeks before King was killed in 1968, he told Newcombe, "You'll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field."
Newcombe remembered those comments during a 2009 interview with the New York Post's Peter Vecsey.
"Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by dogs and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier," Newcombe told Vecsey.
King describing Robinson as a pilgrim has a specific religious meaning, but it also resonates with anyone who has taken a lonely journey that was intended to promote a greater good. Baseball integrated before the U.S. Army. Before many public schools. Before the U.S. constitution. Before most of the rest of the country. Perhaps all of that happens without Jackie Robinson. But somebody had to go first, and MLK knew who that was.