Restrain Yourself

As he started in baseball’s farm system, then in the pros, Robinson faced more than just slights from service staff or reticent players.

I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite.

—BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

People who knew Jackie Robinson as a young man probably wouldn’t have predicted that they’d one day see him become the first black player in Major League Baseball. Not that he wasn’t talented, or that the idea of eventually integrating white baseball was inconceivable, it’s that he wasn’t exactly known for his restraint and poise.

As a teenager, Robinson ran with a small gang of friends who regularly found themselves in trouble with local police. He challenged a fellow student to a fight at a junior college picnic for using a slur. In a basketball game, he surreptitiously struck a hard-fouling white opponent with the ball so forcefully that the kid bled everywhere. He was arrested more than once for arguing with and challenging police, who he felt treated him unfairly.

Before he started at UCLA, he spent the night in jail (and had a gun drawn on him by an officer) for nearly fighting a white man who’d insulted his friends. And in addition to rumors of inciting protests against racism, Jackie Robinson effectively ended his career as a military officer at Camp Hood in 1944 when a bus driver attempted to force him to sit in the back in spite of laws that forbade segregation on base buses. By arguing and cursing at the driver and then directly challenging his commanding officer after the fracas, Jackie set in motion a series of events that led to a court-martial. Despite being acquitted, he was discharged shortly afterward.

It’s not just understandable and human that he did this; it was probably the right thing to do. Why should he let anyone else treat him that way? No one should have to stand for that.

Except sometimes they do. Are there not goals so important that we’d put up with anything to achieve them?

When Branch Rickey, the manager and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, scouted Jackie to potentially become the first black player in baseball, he had one question: Do you have the guts? “I’m looking,” Rickey told him, “for a ball player with the guts not to fight back.” In fact, in their famous meeting, Rickey playacted the abuse that Robinson was likely to experience if he accepted Rickey’s challenge: a hotel clerk refusing him a room, a rude waiter in a restaurant, an opponent shouting slurs. This, Robinson assured him, he was ready to handle.

There were plenty of players Rickey could have gone with. But he needed one who wouldn’t let his ego block him from seeing the bigger picture.

As he started in baseball’s farm system, then in the pros, Robinson faced more than just slights from service staff or reticent players. There was an aggressive, coordinated campaign to libel, boo, provoke, freeze out, attack, maim, or even kill. In his career, he was hit by more than seventy-two pitches, nearly had his Achilles tendon taken out by players who aimed their spikes at him, and that says nothing of the calls he was cheated out of and the breaks of the game that didn’t go his way. Yet Jackie Robinson held to his unwritten pact with Rickey, never giving into explosive anger—however deserved. In fact, in nine years in the league, he never hit another player with his fist.

Athletes seem spoiled and hotheaded to us today, but we have no concept of what the leagues were like then. In 1956, Ted Williams, one of the most revered and respected players in the history of the game, was once caught spitting at his fans. As a white player he could not only get away with this, he later told reporters, “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and I’d spit again at the same people who booed me today . . . Nobody’s going to stop me from spitting.” For a black player, this sort of behavior “would have been not only unthinkable but shortsighted beyond comprehension. Robinson had no such freedom—it would have ended not only his career, but set back his grand experiment for a generation.

Jackie’s path called for him to put aside both his ego and in some respects his basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being. Early in his career, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, was particularly brutal in his taunting during a game. “They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!” he yelled over and over. “We don’t want you here, nigger.” Not only did Jackie not respond—despite, as he later wrote, wanting to “grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist”—a month later he agreed to take a friendly photo with Chapman to help save the man’s job.

The thought of touching, posing with such an asshole, even sixty years removed, almost turns the stomach. Robinson called it one of the most difficult things he ever did, but he was willing to because it was part of a larger plan. He understood that certain forces were trying to bait him, to ruin him. Knowing what he wanted and needed to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate in order do it. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.

Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with. Our humiliations will pale in comparison to Robinson’s, but it will still be hard. It will still be tough to keep our self-control.

Excerpt From: Ryan Holiday. “Ego Is the Enemy.”

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