Selig: Jackie Robinson ‘was the most electrifying player I’ve ever seen’

The Jackie Robinson Foundation will honor Selig at its awards banquet tonight in New York with a Robie Award, given to "individuals who embody the humanitarian ideals of Jackie Robinson." Selig, a self-described American history buff who calls Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 "one of the most important moments of the 20th century," recently spoke about the honor — and its namesake — with Sporting News’ Ryan Fagan.

Bud Selig has been baseball commissioner since 1992.
Bud Selig has been baseball commissioner since 1992.

Sporting New: How big of an honor is this for you?

Bud Selig: I’ve often said that I think baseball’s proudest, most meaningful moment was April 15, 1947. When I think what Branch Rickey did, who I have deep admiration for, after all, think about this: He did it before the Civil Rights movement, per se, he did it before Harry Truman desegregated the United States Army, he did it before the famed Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. It’s remarkable.

And Jackie, under incredible pressure, pressure that — I’ve talked to a lot of people about this over the years — was just stunning. And he made it, and it was just a remarkable chapter in baseball history.

So here, a man that I admire so much and to get their historic lifetime achievement award, given how I feel, I must tell you, is a wonderful honor. And I’m really deeply touched by it.

SN: Baseball retired Robinson’s number in 1997. Where does that rank on the list of accomplishments during your time as commissioner?

BS: Very high. I’m very proud of the wild card and revenue sharing the interleague play and the whole restructuring of the game, and our Internet company and our channel. But the favorite part of my career, which is 45 years old now, is what I call the sociological part.

The impact that this sport has in society is remarkable, absolutely remarkable. Its history is revered like no other history. Here’s the whole Jackie Robinson situation, which I don’t think had been really properly honored. So that was a decision, when you look back on it, you wonder why there was ever any hesitation. I’m obviously very proud of it.

'It was remarkable what a great athlete he (Jackie Robinson) was,' Selig says.
‘It was remarkable what a great athlete he (Jackie Robinson) was,’ Selig says.

SN: What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about Jackie Robinson?

BS: Courage. I did something way back when in my career; I talked to a lot of people who played with him, played against him or had roles in either a negative sense or who had been sorry for what they had done. I wanted to hear from people who witnessed the abuse that he took, witnessed the pressures.

I don’t think he’d mind if I tell you, but Dixie Walker, who was with the Milwaukee Braves in the ’60s when I was just breaking in — I got to know Dixie real well. I used to talk to him about that because I was fascinated back then about Jackie Robinson. I was fortunate to see him here, and in Brooklyn, I went to some games in the late ’40s, and I saw him play in Chicago. I saw him play in Wrigley Field in 1947, the first trip in. A friend of mine went down to the game, as we often did.

I must tell you, one thing I say about (Jackie), and against the Braves, even against the great players like (Warren) Spahn and (Lew) Burdette … he was the most electrifying player I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t the greatest player I’ve ever seen, but certainly a Hall of Famer. And think about this, what a great athlete he was. Didn’t get his chance in the big leagues until I believe he was 28. But in football, there were people who said he was better than Kenny Washington. Think about that. Kenny Washington was a great player, and he was just … it was remarkable what a great athlete he was.

SN: What else comes to mind?

BS: He took a lot of abuse, even in the service. You read the stories — and I’ve read every book on Jackie Robinson, and I’ve talked to (his wife) Rachel about it — about the trip in ’46 when he first went to get ready for the International League season, and how they had to ride buses and they were rejected out of homes they had to live in.

But think of the pressure on him, and because he made it, there was a Hank Aaron, who happens to be a very close friend of mine as you probably know, and Willie Mays and Bob Gibson and Willie Stargell and on and on and on. He really changed America in so many ways. To get an honor like this from the Jackie Robinson Foundation is very, very meaningful.

Ryan Fagan is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ryan_fagan.

The Jackie Robinson Foundation will honor Selig at its awards banquet tonight in New York with a Robie Award, given to "individuals who embody the humanitarian ideals of Jackie Robinson." Selig, a self-described American history buff who calls Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 "one of the most important moments of the 20th century," recently spoke about the honor — and its namesake — with Sporting News’ Ryan Fagan.

Bud Selig has been baseball commissioner since 1992.
Bud Selig has been baseball commissioner since 1992.

Sporting New: How big of an honor is this for you?

Bud Selig: I’ve often said that I think baseball’s proudest, most meaningful moment was April 15, 1947. When I think what Branch Rickey did, who I have deep admiration for, after all, think about this: He did it before the Civil Rights movement, per se, he did it before Harry Truman desegregated the United States Army, he did it before the famed Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. It’s remarkable.

And Jackie, under incredible pressure, pressure that — I’ve talked to a lot of people about this over the years — was just stunning. And he made it, and it was just a remarkable chapter in baseball history.

So here, a man that I admire so much and to get their historic lifetime achievement award, given how I feel, I must tell you, is a wonderful honor. And I’m really deeply touched by it.

SN: Baseball retired Robinson’s number in 1997. Where does that rank on the list of accomplishments during your time as commissioner?

BS: Very high. I’m very proud of the wild card and revenue sharing the interleague play and the whole restructuring of the game, and our Internet company and our channel. But the favorite part of my career, which is 45 years old now, is what I call the sociological part.

The impact that this sport has in society is remarkable, absolutely remarkable. Its history is revered like no other history. Here’s the whole Jackie Robinson situation, which I don’t think had been really properly honored. So that was a decision, when you look back on it, you wonder why there was ever any hesitation. I’m obviously very proud of it.

'It was remarkable what a great athlete he (Jackie Robinson) was,' Selig says.
‘It was remarkable what a great athlete he (Jackie Robinson) was,’ Selig says.

SN: What’s the first thing that pops into your mind about Jackie Robinson?

BS: Courage. I did something way back when in my career; I talked to a lot of people who played with him, played against him or had roles in either a negative sense or who had been sorry for what they had done. I wanted to hear from people who witnessed the abuse that he took, witnessed the pressures.

I don’t think he’d mind if I tell you, but Dixie Walker, who was with the Milwaukee Braves in the ’60s when I was just breaking in — I got to know Dixie real well. I used to talk to him about that because I was fascinated back then about Jackie Robinson. I was fortunate to see him here, and in Brooklyn, I went to some games in the late ’40s, and I saw him play in Chicago. I saw him play in Wrigley Field in 1947, the first trip in. A friend of mine went down to the game, as we often did.

I must tell you, one thing I say about (Jackie), and against the Braves, even against the great players like (Warren) Spahn and (Lew) Burdette … he was the most electrifying player I’ve ever seen. He wasn’t the greatest player I’ve ever seen, but certainly a Hall of Famer. And think about this, what a great athlete he was. Didn’t get his chance in the big leagues until I believe he was 28. But in football, there were people who said he was better than Kenny Washington. Think about that. Kenny Washington was a great player, and he was just … it was remarkable what a great athlete he was.

SN: What else comes to mind?

BS: He took a lot of abuse, even in the service. You read the stories — and I’ve read every book on Jackie Robinson, and I’ve talked to (his wife) Rachel about it — about the trip in ’46 when he first went to get ready for the International League season, and how they had to ride buses and they were rejected out of homes they had to live in.

But think of the pressure on him, and because he made it, there was a Hank Aaron, who happens to be a very close friend of mine as you probably know, and Willie Mays and Bob Gibson and Willie Stargell and on and on and on. He really changed America in so many ways. To get an honor like this from the Jackie Robinson Foundation is very, very meaningful.

Ryan Fagan is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at rfagan@sportingnews.com, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ryan_fagan.

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