Wearing your heart on the back of your uniform

By Michael Katz


Wearing your heart on the back of your uniform

This week's Sports Illustrated arrived and there, in stunning silent tribute, was a row of uniforms, all with No. 42, hanging in front of Dodger lockers. No one wore No. 42 into the ring last weekend. Maybe some pug somewhere stenciled the name of an offshore gambling website on his back, but boxing prepared no mementos, artistic or commercial, for Jackie Robinson, who was only one of the greatest fighters of all time.

It wouldn't surprise anyone if the best boxer around these days did not know much about Robinson. Floyd Mayweather Jr. would likely confuse him with another Robinson, one he says he was better than, Sugar Ray Robinson, a pretty fair fighter himself.

While boxing did not mark the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, it could have taken a couple of slight bows for its own, often reluctant, work in the often dirty arena of civil rights. Powerful forces were aligned on both sides of the battle, but as one of the great warriors on the side of Good once predicted about another war, "We're going to win because we're on God's side."

By the time Jackie Robinson took center stage, Joe Louis had gone to bat for baseball, and American society. Louis was a credit to his race, the human race, as Jimmy Cannon wrote, but as a naturally quiet and dignified man, it wasn't too hard to keep him in character and not act like the previous African-American heavyweight champion, the uppity Jack Johnson. If Johnson were the heavyweight champion of the world in 1947, fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry; it is not so certain Branch Rickey would have felt the time was ripe for a step that was too long overdue.

That  Louis, who was by nature no Uncle Tom, had to be thus portrayed says more about our own culture than it does about him. One of his great contemporaries, Jersey Joe Walcott, told me that even in the late Thirties, there was such a thing as a "Great White Hope" tournament in the redneck center of Coney Island - and there weren't enough white heavyweights to fill it out, so he entered and won. We really had not traveled that far from the Jack Johnson era when there was a serious search for a white fighter to take back from "them" the most prized possession in sports, one that was looked upon as the birthright of the Caucasian race. There are times when it appears even today we still have not traveled very far up the evolutionary trail toward equality.

The "N" word is still too often said, mostly by African-Americans themselves, and this confuses the hell out of whitestream America. The wrath that came down on Don Imus has not come down on the hip-hop lyrics that in a perverse way he was echoing. But hip-hop, which I'm afraid I'm too old to appreciate (my musical tastes run to classical and jazz), is just another example of the utter frustration felt by too large a portion of our population. Jack Johnson, fighting the system head on, gave a people not long before in slavery, a sense of pride. But the riots, and lynchings, sparked by his victories, especially over James Jeffries, were a sure sign the country was not ready for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. Until Louis two decades after Johnson, blacks were shut out of the heavyweight division, the same way they were banned from baseball. But when the specter of Hitler's Nazis arose, it fell upon Louis to represent the Good in a battle against Evil, as portrayed by the unlikely Max Schmeling, whose crime was being born German - the same as Jack Johnson's outrageous felony of being born black.

In the ensuing war, African-Americans were reluctantly allowed to wear the uniforms of their country. When they returned, however, they were not permitted to wear the colors of the Philadelphia Phillies or New York Yankees. Robinson opened doors not only to baseball, but to American society in general. Slowly, ever too slowly, minorities were allowed into better schools, housing and jobs.

Back then, as a good St. Louis Cardinal fan growing up in Brooklyn during the Fifties, of course I hated Jackie Robinson. I hated the arrogant way he led off base, taunting pitchers and the defense to stop him from stealing. I hated the uncanny way he had of beating my team. Oh, how I hated him - and Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella (the nerve of him to steal home in an extra-inning game against the Cardinals in I believe 1949, a year the Dodgers finished just one game ahead of St. Louis), Preacher Roe, the whole Knothole Gang.

So I must tell my very own Jackie Robinson story and how the object of my disaffection became a true icon to an 11-year-old boy. It was 1951 and I was a student at Seth Low Junior High - named, as you surely remember, for the last mayor of the city of Brooklyn before it adopted the other New York boroughs - and Robinson came one day to address the school assembly.

At this time, I was taking much heat for being a big fan of the Cardinals' always hustling Enos (Country) Slaughter, who grew up in Carolina and was reputedly one of the leaders of a boycott Robinson movement that was squelched by Stan Musial. In certain sectors of Brooklyn, even 56 years ago, racism was considered a heinous offense, especially when the suspect once spiked the saintly Robinson.

Kids were allowed to ask questions of the great hero and somehow I wound up with the microphone. I asked Robinson if he thought Slaughter spiked him on purpose.

"Enos Slaughter would spike his own mother," he said and I proudly turned to my compatriots as if to say, "See, I told you…."

Jackie Robinson, bless him, had managed to preserve a young boy's image of a hero. I was forever grateful and am glad that years and years later, at a memorial service for Red Smith, I met by old idol and was able to tell him the Robinson story. I have no illusions that Slaughter grew up a redneck, but time and exposure have a way of turning once-set positions.

Robinson was no real saint, either, of course. Who is? During Muhammad Ali's exile for refusing to join the Army, the baseball great admonished him for being a "draft-dodger." I remember in 1978, when I was stuck in Fort Lauderdale at the Yankees' early spring training camp, watching Leon Spinks upset Ali on my hotel TV, virtually exhausted seeing his late attempt to save his title, that I heard the same expression - with the "F" and "N" words at the hotel bar when I asked Billy Martin what he thought of the fight.

"I wouldn't watch that F'in 'N draft-dodger," replied the Yankee manager.

He stuck his nose in my face, as if I were an offending umpire, and added, "I could beat him "

"No way," I said, counting the thousands I would win for taking a sucker punch. But he just backed down, obviously afraid of hurting me.

Ali, of course, was no saint either. By the time of Manila, I was rooting for Joe Frazier, who should not have been treated like an "Uncle Tom." The fighters are not the only ones who act racist. The promoters, in searching for the green, are not ashamed to use race as a marketing tool. After Ali, Bob Arum tried to continue in the heavyweight trade by latching on to a couple of white products of South African apartheid, Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze.

In 1970, I covered the far-from-liberal International Olympic Committee meeting in Amsterdam when it banished the sports-happy South Africans from the Games. I was captivated by a South African, Dennis Brutus, who was then teaching at Northwestern University, who argued that isolation was the best tool to stop the ugly rule of apartheid. I remember arguing with Arthur Ashe, who intended to play tennis in South Africa in the hopes of easing relations, that would not work. When he had to pick up some tickets at the "colored" window, he angrily left and later became head of Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid.

Arum, whose company was in dire straits, saw a "gold mine" in South Africa, and particularly in the Bantustan of Bophutatswana, a bunch of rocks established as a "home nation" for "colored" who could thus be denied South African citizenship. A major gambling resort was created there, Southern Sun, and Arum had proposed to put the Spinks-Ali rematch there. It was backpage of the New York Daily News when my sports editor at the New York Times, Le Anne Schreiber (now the ombudsman at espn.com), called me off the football Giants to check out the News story. It was soon discovered that Bophutatswana was a fraudulent nation and it was obvious Muhammad Ali - as soon as I reached Herbert Muhammad, his manager - would not be playing there. Then, when Arum tried to shift the fight to the Southern Sun property on Mauritius, a little research provided that the island was where the dodo went extinct (mostly eaten by Dutch sailors), that Southern Sun was an unofficial arm of the apartheid government. The fight wound up in New Orleans.

Meanwhile, while Arum was going about signing Coetzee and Knoetze (who the New York Times reported was a South African cop who was accused of jury tampering after he shot and crippled a black youngster who was climbing a fence to escape and not threatening anyone), Don King was calling his rival the "Apostle of Apartheid." Of course, King also had tried to sign Coetzee and Knoetze and later in fact had the promotional rights to Coetzee when he knocked out Michael Dokes to win the WBAboon heavyweight title. King then dispatched an agent to South Africa, sold the rights to ak defense against Greg Page to local promoters, and took out a hefty bundle. When I heard about it, I called Ashe - waking him up - to tell him he had a problem with one of the members of the board on Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid. After Arthur checked it out, King was expelled from the organization.

It was ever thus. Back when, it was the Irish vs. the Jews in the ring. We still see fighters called "Irish" So-and-So, the adjective to make sure everyone knows the person in question is white. And then we have the reverse prejudice of people who think white fighters can't jump.

The African-American population in baseball has dwindled, replaced in part by Hispanics. In boxing, Arum has discovered the Latin market. And, whites have jumped back into the game in the form of Germans and Eastern Europeans. Times keep a'changin' - faster than you can say Jackie Robinson, thanks.

PENTHOUSE: Bob Arum, for his delightful pay-per-view show from San Antonio that featured four entertaining fights, including a couple of mild upsets - Cristian Mijares, who belongs in here all by his lonesome for the way he outclassed Jorge Arce, and Edgar Sosa's spirited victory over Brian Viloria. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. continued to show improvement and Manny Pacquiao, claiming he was only about 80 percent, had enough to take care of Jorge Solis, no doubt inspired by his own blood.

OUTHOUSE: Arum, for bragging that his show was unlike those of HBO and Showtime because it had fireworks and music. Bull. It had good competitive matches involving good fighters. HBO and Showtime both tried the loud approach - so did El Ced Kushner - and it doesn't work unless the fights are worth watching. It's that simple.

SPECIAL PENTHOUSE: For the second week in a row, let's honor Kevin Iole, the freshly minted Fleischer winner for "excellence in boxing journalism," who will be leaving the Las Vegas Review-Journal for greener pastures at Yahoo.com. It's nice when good things happen to nice people.

DIS AND THAT: I'm beginning to think my boss has been trapped in a time warp with all his exclusive interviews with Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney. Greg, let 'em go. They were before your time. I'll handle the nostalgia stuff here with Budd and George. Ruslan Chagaev beat Nikolay Valuev and there were contented sighs that Rocky Marciano's "record" would not be broken. Marciano did not set a record with his 49-0 (and if he did, tell me quickly whose "record" he broke). The 49-0 was his personal record, the same way Butterbean's record is Butterbean's. No one can break that, either. Some records are not made to be broken….Why promoters irk me: the Top Rank press release began, "The big comeback roars on…." Yes, Tommy Morrison faces Dynamite Dale Ortiz and his 3-1 record in a four-rounder April 27 in Houston. Roar on, big comeback, roar on, but let's hold down the hype….Chris Byrd returned a year after his debacle against Wladimir Klitschko and physically the Byrd man seemed to have morphed from squab to a more muscular hawk. Trouble is, he still punches like a dove….Hope to catch a glimpse of Nacho Beristain's latest project, undefeated bantam prospect Abner Mares, who headlines on Telefutura against veteran Angel Priolo from Chicago on Telefutura. Beristain is the great Mexican trainer who handled such as Ricardo Lopez and Daniel Zaragoza and now works with the Marquez brothers, Rafael and Juan Manuel….Also, must watching (besides "Monk") is the ShoBox 140-pound eliminator between Kendall Holt and Michael Arnaoutis. Seems there are good fights all over the place, and good fighters like Mijares. So why do we concentrate so much on heavyweights?


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