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History Jackie and Heritage Jackie

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This past weekend on April 15, Major League Baseball (MLB) celebrated the 70th anniversary of  Jackie Robinson‘s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers when he became the first African-American player in the big leagues in the modern era. The fact that it was the 70th anniversary was remarkable and included events like statue commemorations as well, although MLB does celebrate Robinson every season on April 15, most notably with all players wearing Robinson’s number 42 for games on that day. However, as many commentators noted, these commemorations and celebrations ignore much of Robinson’s story. In this, we see the differences between “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie,” though the perspectives might not be as far apart as they seem.

As scholars of heritage (and probably history as well) will tell you, history and heritage are different – they have different audiences, different purposes, and different outcomes. Sport historians are correct in pointing out that Robinson’s story is not a fable meant to reassure us, but rather is complex. In this, they ought to question the ways in which Robinson’s accomplishments are recognized today – particularly in what history is ignored. A critical heritage studies perspective would not necessarily ask what differs between the historical record and the contemporary commemorations, but rather why, by whom, and to what end Robinson is being remembered.  This might include remembering (perhaps in a self-congratulatory way) the moment when something that happened on a baseball field transcended the sport itself, the need to attract African-Americans to play baseball, and even selling merchandise based on the commemorations. The historical perspective is about the past, and the heritage perspective is about the present and future, though they almost certainly inform one another.

This is not to suggest that MLB should stop recognizing Robinson every April 15. In fact, from my perspective, it is one of the best things that MLB does. That said, perhaps the commemorations ought to include more public history, where the complex story of Robinson is translated for a general audience. Similarly, what does Robinson’s story tell us about what other issues we have to address, besides baseball enrolment and selling more tickets and merchandise (which primarily helps MLB)? Robinson undoubtedly continues to serve as an inspiration – but what else might his legacy inspire baseball and its fans to do? In this, “History Jackie” and “Heritage Jackie” might become more aligned towards not only a fuller understanding of the past, but where that past takes us today and tomorrow.


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