CHICAGO -- On the 67th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball, White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf recalled that the biggest question on April 15, 1947, was not the color of Robinson's skin, but rather: Could he play?
"It was all about what kind of a ballplayer he was," said Reinsdorf, who grew up in Brooklyn as a diehard fan of Robinson's Dodgers.
"I watched this interview with Ralph Branca, and what Ralph said [jogged] my memory -- it wasn't that big a deal," Reinsdorf recalled while speaking to the media following Tuesday's panel discussion on Robinson and his impact on sports and society at the U.S. Cellular Field Conference and Learning Center. "It was a question of if he could play. And when he came up -- and he was only hitting about .240-something into May -- and so there were some questions about whether he was going to be a good enough player. Spider Jorgensen [another rookie] looked like he might be a better player, then Jackie took off and became very popular. But it was all based upon [whether] could he play."
Reinsdorf was joined by White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams and Dr. Carol Adams, CEO of DuSable Museum of African American History, in an informative hour-long discussion, with the audience filled by students from local Chicago high schools such as Kenwood Academy, King College Prep, Leo High School, Seton Academy and Simeon Career Academy. They discussed Robinson's impact on history, but they also talked about the opportunities provided by the way Robinson handled breaking the color barrier.
"We're going through a real turmoil right now," Reinsdorf said. "Sometimes, there are more opportunities for minorities than there are for whites right now, trying to get things even. But at the same time, there's also a lot of doors that are still closed.
"So we're not there, and it evolves. A number of years ago, we didn't have any black managers. Jackie's last public appearance, he said he would feel fulfilled if he looked over in the dugout saw a black manager. And he died a couple months later. Well, Frank Robinson became the first black manager, there was a big to-do about that, but still there were very few black managers.
"Eventually, we got black managers, and then we arrived at the point where a black manager could be fired and no one would say anything about it. I mean, that was important, too, because it meant that he wasn't getting any pluses or any minuses. He was being judged on his own performance. Now a black manager is hired, nobody comments that he's black. When he gets fired, nobody comments that he's black. That's all well and good. But yet, the thing that bothers me is that racism still exists on both sides."
That is a problem that cannot be overcome by just one man, Williams said, but rather must be solved by all of us.
"If Jackie were standing here, I believe he would not say that he did it alone," Williams said. "One of the things that I pointed to the group is, I don't want people to think that oppression is overcome by that one particular group who is being oppressed fighting the cause. It is a humanity issue, and humanity has to fight the cause together: black, white, brown, whatever, has to fight it together. So he had help. We have to do it collectively. That's what humanity is."
Robinson's humanity and perseverance in the face of hostility no doubt contributed to Williams becoming the first African-American general manager in Chicago sports history in October 2000.
"Maybe that would ultimately, over time, have happened," Williams said. "Again, history's timeline was sped up, because Branch Rickey had the courage and Jackie met the challenge."
While there are more challenges ahead -- Williams mentioned Major League Baseball ownership as another color barrier still to be broken -- it is also true that many opportunities exist that certainly weren't there decades ago. Williams encouraged the students to grab those opportunities, whatever they may be.
Christian Medley, a student from King College Prep, told the panel during a question-and-answer portion of the program that he is going to Morehouse College to major in finance on tennis and academic scholarships. Using sports to get an education and further develop his life drew a smile and a handshake from Williams.
That opportunity for Medley, although in a different sport, was a testament to Robinson's legacy.
"Only Jackie Robinson could have done what he did," Medley said. "That's what makes him truly remarkable."
"Not everyone is athletically inclined," Williams said. "So my point is, whatever your talent, whatever your gift is, whatever your desire is, push yourself to the limits to achieve, to ignore the obstacles that may be in front of you and persevere. If you do that, then things more than likely will guide you. You'll have a path to some sort of measureable success."