2009 Topps American Heritage #51, Martin Luther King, Jr.

2009 Topps American Heritage #51, Martin Luther King Jr.

In respectful observation of MLK day, please enjoy this tribute card to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, there’s no shortage of well-researched articles, essays, and other accounts about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his national, even global legacy. Likewise, King’s far-reaching influences are also recognized in his impact on baseball. In truth, and with consideration of the historical timeline, it is probably easier to claim that baseball and its barrier-breaking players of color held far-reaching influences and recognized impact—on King and his civil rights mission. (In “Baseball’s Impact on Martin Luther King Jr.,” writer David suggests as much.) Indeed, former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe incredulously relayed one occasion when King himself praised the accomplishments of his predecessors in baseball in no uncertain terms:

‘Don, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you guys setting up the minds of people for change. You, Jackie and Roy Campanella will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job.’

Can you imagine that? How easy we made it for Martin Luther King!

In any case, preceding and eventually alongside King, legends like Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and many other important early African American ballplayers made their own special kind of civil rights contributions and advancements in sports culture and beyond.

Doubtlessly, though, King sold himself short in that exchange with Newcombe. Anyone can see as much. Look at the common thread that runs through the many histories and retrospectives: despite the context or means of communication, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached hopeful messages of freedom and equality through emphasis on brotherhood, sisterhood, and, simply, humanity. Directly or indirectly, the force of his oratory persona, rhetorical skill, and those essential principles resonated with and profoundly touched countless individuals and communities. That resonation carried (back) through the baseball world as well.

For example, St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood certainly revered the man, and Flood made a gift of a painted portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. to King’s widow (though there’s debate about whether Flood actually painted or merely “commissioned” such work). Then there’s the notable telegram that Martin Luther King, Jr. once sent to Jackie Robinson. It’s even as though a King-like aura would eventually transmute and metamorphose in Robinson himself in his later, more official advocacy and leadership roles like his work for the NAACP. But ultimately it is speculation as to who made more of an impression on whom over the course of King and Robinson’s face-to-face meetings and whatever other correspondence. Still, not unlike that renowned power King possessed—to inspire audiences and listeners and move them to tears with his words—Robinson seemed to have a bit of that in him, too. For example, in No No: A Dockumentary (2014), Dock Ellis shares a letter addressed to him from Jackie Robinson; Ellis audibly, almost uncontrollably weeps on the tape recording upon reading Robinson’s note. Instances such as these powerfully suggest the manifold ways in which a legacy like King’s can live on and be passed down through generations in kindred stories and artifacts.

To add to those stories and artifacts, this poignant, colorful photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. playing baseball with his son may also be worth a look. The photo resides at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History in the Flip Schulke Photographic Archive. The photo presents a different, more intimate side of this noted historical figure—perhaps a more human side than the one with which we have grown accustomed. (Note: another copy of this image, sans watermarks, appears in this photo slideshow, also found in the center’s archive.)

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Oh Jacki[e]

One critique of the pervading Jackie Robinson legacy narrative goes something like this: most fans and admirers already know about Jackie Robinson the symbolic hero and virtual saint, but we are sorely at a loss for historical accounts of Jackie Robinson the man, the conflicted, or even (gasp) the fallible. After 42 was released in 2013, much remains the same—at least in terms of onscreen portraits. However, books like Jules Tygiel’s Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (1983) and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography (1997), among others, thankfully lend some dimensions and shades of complexity to a tale otherwise typically told in terms of contrasts as stark as the very racial divides that Robinson helped bridge.

However, this isn’t a book review. And in any case, there’s something else that conveys with utter realism the very ephemeral humanity of our most renowned historic figures: the curious photographic and painterly images of such popular idols printed crisp and bright at first, before they inevitably morph with age on whatever moldy or brittle scraps of cardboard. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 3rd poorest

In as much, the first time I laid eyes on this topographic spectacle of crags and rifts, a veritable ravine running prominently down the ravaged geographic center, I thought I’d found the one. Surely, this must be the poorest of all specimens of 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 2nd poorest

Not long after, though, I discovered this poor Jackie: complete with some anonymous soul’s tortured math homework scratched out and hovering ethereally in lead-penciled glory over Robinson’s right shoulder—whereupon I knew that there could be no better paradigm for a poor 1953 Topps Jackie Robinson #1. . . .

1953 Topps Jackie Robinson 1, 1st poorestFinally, I found this. Then I marveled in awe at the surviving remains, how scant the frayed & burnt cellulose fibers barely holding things together.

Thus I close with an ill-advised and downright silly, sentimental quote (what my former 18th Century English literature professor might term bathetic). Still the words feel oddly apt. To (mis)appropriate from those gaudy pop icons of moussed hair, leather, keyboard synths, and moogs:

The noise electric never stops
And all you need is what you got
And there’s a place for everyone
Under heartbeat city’s golden sun
Jacki[e]

Oh Jacki[e]

   —The Cars, “Heartbeat City”

Poor Kenny Washington, 1948 Leaf

1948 Leaf, kenny washington

Or Kenneth “Kingfish” Washington–the first African American signed to an NFL team in the modern era. He played college football with Jackie Robinson at UCLA and was considered by many to be a standout athlete in his own right. After some gigs with a couple of minor professional football leagues and more than a few knee injuries later, the NFL finally ended a prolonged ban on black players when Washington joined the Los Angeles Rams. However, too much time and too many injuries had already transpired. Playing only three seasons with the Rams, Washington retired in 1948–but not before at least one vibrant, beautiful card issue could be made. Now it’s been gradually unmade by man and the brutal process of deterioration. Now it’s been beautifully wrecked with all of the fitting metaphoric potential. Colors appear faded, corners indicate signs of dogeared folds, and an almost evenly divided quadrant of creases seems to segregate poor Kenny from himself. But it’s still here holding on strong to an ever slipping, tenuous existence. And while in the hushed arenas of collective memory his stat. lines may yield only whispers, Kenny Washington’s breakthrough should instead summon from bottom to uppermost tiers a resonant, undulant roar.

Visit the Kenny Washington Wikipedia entry here.

Image courtesy of COMC.com.