The View from Ebbets Field, 60 Years after Jackie Robinson Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier

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11/10/2008

Ebbets Field Apartments, Brooklyn, 11225

Neighborhood: Across the River, Brooklyn

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Photo by Cannon Kinnard

The faded green sign at 1700 Bedford Avenue that reads “NO BALL PLAYING” has had tenants of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field Apartments laughing at the irony, as they walk across the street to Jackie Robinson Park to play ball.

This is the former site of Ebbets Field baseball park; home of the Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957, when they moved to Los Angeles due to financial scuffling by the owners. The park was demolished in 1960.

Now it is a 1,300 public housing project that is home to over 4,000 people.

Baseball teams are a source of pride and become symbols for something greater in American society. Ebbets residents don’t have that pride anymore; the pride that Jackie Robinson ignited here 61 years ago by breaking baseball’s color barrier.

But they want that pride back.

Even if some are skeptical that Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party, can cross that finish line.

“I don’t think that America is ready for a black President,” said Michael Leach, 25, a one-year resident of Ebbets Field, while playing handball on a recent Sunday.

“You don’t think America is ready for a black President?” yelled Wayne Whittaker, in disbelief. “Look at Nelson Mandela! If there was any country that wasn’t ready for a black president, it was South Africa.”

Whittaker, 40, is African-American. Leach describes himself as a mutt. His mother is Irish and his father is black, like Obama’s father.

Leach, who has a six-month-old son, said he liked Republican Sen. John McCain’s stand on education. But he just didn’t believe Obama’s rival would deliver for him if elected.

“I doubt he’s going to come to Brownville and say, ‘Ok, come on Rakwon and DaeDae, and lets make sure you get a college degree.’ But Obama is in that $250,000 tax bracket. He said he doesn’t mind paying a little extra.”

In debates and on the stump, the Illinois senator has said he doesn’t mind paying more taxes to effect change for the middle class, and he plans to impose higher taxes on individuals whose net incomes exceed $250,000 annually.

Whittaker tells Leach that an Obama presidency would restore America’s standing in the world.

“Do you know that if you traveled, five years before Bush come on, you [could have] gone anywhere with a Yankee hat? You better not wear a Yankee hat in any other country but America now.”

He added: “You used to wear a Yankee hat in Fez, Turkey, in Istanbul, and kids would snatch that hat off … those kids wanted that hat. You go now, you better keep [your] Yankee hat hidden.”

Nat Washington, has lived at Ebbet’s Field for over 30 years, was a young man when Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

“I never thought I would live to see it, possibly a black president. I’m just a little leery of assassination. Some nut may kill him,” Washington, 76 said.

“There are always those nuts out there. They killed Kennedy, then Bobby, Dr. King. Even George Wallace got shot,” he added as he peered through thick brown-rimmed glasses, tightening his grip on the cane across his lap.

Beyond Ebbets, Brooklyn’s greater black community has been impassioned by the idea of an Obama presidency.

Ten blocks away in Clinton Hill, an enclave of black middle class families, worshippers at the Emmanuel Baptist Church pointed out that though Obama has gone far, the pioneering efforts of others before him had eased his way.

“I think he’s gone farther than some of his predecessors of color, but bear in mind that it was splintered significantly by those that came before him,” said Kevin Dantzler, 38, an attorney.

“Frederick Douglas, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton. Certainly Dr. King. …. they all share the common vision that there will be an equal setting at the table for all of us,” he added.

“The fact that people are still apprehensive, reluctant and [have trepidation] about a black person occupying the highest office in the land says a lot about our country. However, on the other hand, on the faithful optimistic side, the fact that a person of color is the nominee for a major political party? That says something about our country as well.”

For Letitia James, the Brooklyn City Council representative, whose district includes swaths of well-heeled Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, and large tracts of public housing projects, times are changing.

“Some believe that this is a post-racial era. Others believe that people are voting their pocketbook, and that’s trumping any racism. Others believe that we are being joined in a common denominator, in that we’re all American, and that’s what’s propelling this campaign. I believe in the latter,” she said.

“What matters in this neighborhood is not that you’re black or white, old or young, gay or straight,” James said. “What matters is that crime is down. Our schools are working and producing good results. That our streets are paved; there are affordable housing and playground renovations. I’m not naïve to believe that there isn’t racism there, but the message in the community is that there are much more compelling topics.”

Cannon Kinnard is a graduate of Vanderbilt University by way of the United States Military Academy at West Point and Sciences Polytiques in Paris, France. He has written for La Provence Newspaper in France. An avid rock climber and musician, Cannon was born in Nashville, TN and is a graduate journalism student at New York University.

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