Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Jackie's 62nd Anniversary? Really?

Major League Baseball plans to have all its players wear the number 42 tomorrow, to celebrate the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the leagues' color barrier. I'm going to court controversy here and argue that this anniversary isn't worth celebrating.
[First, a disclaimer for the folks who will surely say, "You don't want to celebrate Jackie? You racist!": I'm a great admirer of Jackie Robinson and what he did for baseball. I like to think that if I were living in 1947, I'd have been in the pro-Jackie camp, just as I'm in this country's minority of same-sex marriage supporters today. So don't read this as coming from some curmudgeonly white guy who snorts his nose at Black History Month and complains that we're too preoccupied, as a nation, with our racist past (or present, for that matter). Folks who know me get that I'm not that guy.]

I've often complained about the arbitrariness of "milestones" and "anniversaries." It's only our base-10 numbering system, after all, that makes a baseball player's every 100th home run "special" and a cause for a curtain call or commemoration in the papers. The constant celebration of these milestone events gets tiresome. (Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye hit each hit his 300th home run yesterday. Whoop-de-frickin'-doo.) As for anniversaries, it seems we can't be satisfied postponing our moments of wistful nostalgia until the nice, round number of ten years have passed. No, it's every five years the newspapers invite us to remember "where we were when Kennedy was shot," as if there's something about 1826 or 1827 days (it's possible to straddle two leap years in a five-year span) that triggers our common cultural compulsion to reflect on an important event from the past.

We're even susceptible to a bit of this arbitrariness here at FO, with our 200 years of Lincoln and Poe and 100 years of The Futurist Manifesto. It is, after all, nice to think about our forebears, and anniversaries give us an occasion to single out great events and great people. So while these numbers 10, 15, 20, 25, 50, 100, 200 don't really mean anything, we make good use of them to ensure that we look regularly to the past, but not so regularly that these great people and events are no longer "special."

Which brings me to Jackie, an unquestionably great man whose moment was unquestionably great and important — not just to baseball, but to society writ large. He should be celebrated; he should be remembered. But is it not enough to celebrate him within the standard cultural parameters of Base 10 and the Five-Year Corollary? Do we have to celebrate his 62nd anniversary? Really? Because where does it stop? 62.5 is actually a more meaningful number. Maybe the ballplayers should save their 42s until October, when they can celebrate 1/16 of a millennium of integrated baseball under the bright lights of playoff baseball.

62? Really? You get the impression that the folks running MLB's maketing department are behind this, that they see Jackie Robinson as a way to tie baseball to society, to continue to impress us with the sport's cultural relevance — when this much should be apparent just from the natural ebb and flow of the game. Or maybe they just want to remind us about something good that the sport did once — but of course the events of April 15, 1947 had nothing to do with the National League and everything to do with just two men: Branch Rickey and Jackie. I'm not averse to the notion that 30 baseball teams, their owners, and league officials can celebrate what none of their predecessors really wanted back in the day. It just gets a little awkward — and starts to seem a little exploitative — now that they're reaching for the number 62 to have their feel-good moment.

62? Really?

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