February is Black History Month. It’s a great opportunity for Americans of all racial backgrounds to take a moment to reflect on our history through the lens of race. It can be a time for African Americans to reflect on the people in their history who have had significant impact. It can help inspire another generation to continue breaking ground and not just accept the status quo. It can be a time for white Americans to learn about a history that for the most part has been glossed over or ignored as “their” story. And it can be a time for us all to look back together and realize that we’ve come a long way.
The history of blacks in baseball is in many ways the story of baseball itself. The story of the Negro Leagues is finally being told thanks to Buck O’Neil and the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of baseball is one which everyone should be familiar. He has rightly become an iconic figure in baseball. His number 42 has been retired throughout all of baseball. No other player carries that distinction. He earned it.
The other day I learned something new about Jackie Robinson and his legacy. In 1987 the American and National League Rookie of the Year Awards were renamed the Jackie Robinson Awards to honor the 40th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier. A fact, it seems, that is almost universally overlooked.
Since 1956, the best pitcher in each league has been given the Cy Young award. The award and the man for whom it’s named have become synonymous. I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as the American or National League Pitcher of the Year Award. It’s the Cy Young, always has been and always will be. However, I’ve never heard the Rookie of the Year award referred to as the Jackie Robinson Award. Not once.
If you visit the list of the annual awards on the official site of Major League Baseball, you’ll find the Cy Young, Roberto Clemente and Hank Aaron awards. And the Jackie Robinson Award? Well, it’s there -- listed under “Rookie of the Year.”
It’s not just the MLB site which ignores the name. I searched as many internet media outlets as I could find that published the 2010 Jackie Robinson Award winners, Neftali Feliz and Buster Posey -- ESPN, USA Today, Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Reuters, New York Daily News, Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post and The New York Times. Not one of them mentioned Jackie Robinson other than the fact that he was the first winner of the National League award. The only article I could find that referred to the Jackie Robinson Award came from the Toronto Sun. I’m going to assume that there are others that I just wasn’t able to find.
Renaming the Rookie of the Year award the Jackie Robinson Award in 1987 was right for so many reasons. He endured a season that’s unimaginable to anybody playing today, and he did so with humility and grace. He didn’t just survive the season. He excelled to the point that the writers named him the Rookie of the Year and voted him fifth for the Most Valuable Player Award.
Awards are lasting tributes to legends of the game. The Cy Young award, the Lombardi Trophy, the Heisman Trophy … they are honors bestowed upon people who deserve recognition. They’re named for people who leave a lasting legacy in their sport and have stories worth telling. There is no person whose story is more worthy than that of Jackie Robinson.
It’s important to keep telling the story. My son is not quite three years old, but someday he’ll ask me about the retired numbers on top of the Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium. I will tell him about the time George Brett nearly hit .400, the triumph and tragedy of Dick Howser and Frank White’s eight Gold Glove Awards.
I’ll also tell him why Jackie Robinson’s number is retired even though he was never a Royal. I’ll tell him about the years that Robinson spent playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. I’ll tell him about Branch Rickey giving Robinson the opportunity. I’ll tell him about the death threats. I hope when that time comes, he’ll find the story even more unfathomable than I did, and he’ll only know the Jackie Robinson Awards. Rookie of the year, what’s that?