For No. 42: Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?
Bob Sandberg via the Library of Congress
While most of us are off sweating our taxes today, there is at least one cause for celebration. Today is Jackie Robinson Day, celebrating the anniversary of Robinson's first taking a major-league baseball field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As the first African-American MLB player, Robinson blazed a trail that ended 80 years of segregation in the sport and paved the way for generations of gifted athletes.
Since 2004, it's become an annual tradition to honor the man who in many ways most defined the true national pastime, embodying as he did both skill undeniable and the place of freedom and equality that America is supposed to represent in ballparks across the nation. This year, for instance, Historic Dodgertown will host an exhibition game, and each player at tonight's Astros-Royals game at Minute Maid Park will wear Robinson's jersey number, 42. That number has become symbolic of the movement towards equality in professional sports, and has been retired at every MLB park. So honor No. 42, here's a playlist of songs about the one and only Jackie Robinson.
Count Basie, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" Any talk about Robinson in song starts with this tune, recorded back when No. 42 was still in his prime. Buddy Johnson wrote it, but Count Basie came along with this better version (in my opinion) in 1949. Regardless, it's a lighthearted tip of the chapeau to Robinson's prowess, something that is often lacking when he is discussed in pop culture. One of the reasons Robinson was able to do what he did was because he was so very good at baseball. That's what paved the way.
Jay-Z feat. Santigold, "Brooklyn Go Hard" Now, Jay-Z may be getting a bit above himself by claiming to occupy the same strata as Robinson, but there's not denying "Brooklyn Go Hard" is a hell of good tune. It was at least good enough to be the theme song for the successful 2013 film 42 so I'll defer to the people who love Jackie Robinson enough to make a $40 million movie about him.
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King Missile, "My Father" Never let a chance to mention King Missile go by if you don't have to. In one of John S. Hall's best nonsensical poem-songs he talks about the accomplishments his father had before he died. One of them was being the first white man in the Negro Leagues, where black players were forced to play pro baseball until Robinson came along and the majors were soon desegregated. Hall's father was apparently traded for Robinson, but it's really just part of the utter insanity that was King Missile. Man, I miss this band.
List continues on the next page.
John Fogerty, "Centerfield" One of Fogerty's best-known songs is an unapologetic ode to his favorite sport of baseball, and he name-drops plenty of famous players in the lyrics. Robinson is not among them obliquely, but he is referenced in a rather clever nod to another man who helped shatter race barriers.
In the line, "Roundin' third and headin' for home/ It's a brown-eyed handsome man." Fogerty calls attention to Chuck Berry's song, "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," which was inspired by racial fear and racist attitudes that Berry witnessed in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Again, though Robinson is not specifically named, the year the song was recorded and the baseball imagery as well as the message make it pretty clear the song is at least in part about Robinson.
Everclear, "Jackie Robinson" The first time I ever heard anyone sing about interracial issues was Art Alexakis doing "Heartspark Dollarsign," and it's always stayed with me as a cheesy but sincere love song about a serious issue. Alexakis tried to capture that feeling again recently with "Jackie Robinson" off 2012's Invisible Stars, and damn if he can't still get me a little teary-eyed no matter how manipulative and saccharine he makes it.
The song profiles a man named Luther who witnessed Jackie Robinson play, went on to work with Martin Luther King, and lived just long enough to see Barack Obama elected President. It's a predictable song, but Alexakis's gift of detailed and descriptive lyrics really bring the message home. He tells us if you want to win in this world you have to beat them at their own game, which is exactly what we're celebrating today.
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