JACKIE ROBINSON'S GREATEST FEAT

This was going to be a column about President Reagan's effort last week to prevent a congressional override of his veto of the highway bill.

By taking on Congress on an issue that meant home district projects and jobs, Mr. Reagan was attempting a feat as risky as getting between a lion and his lunch.When he failed by the narrowest of margins, despite a last-minute personal trip to Capitol Hill to shake loose a few Senate Republican votes, there were suggestions that he had achieved a moral victory.

There was a great temptation to respond to that by dismissing moral victories in the way that Vince Lombardi once described games statistics, as something for losers. But opening day of the baseball season reminded me of a winner whose greatest victory was a moral one: Jack Roosevelt Robinson - Jackie, the first black man to play major league baseball in the game's modern era.

In looking back to the career he began with the Brooklyn Dodgers 40 years ago next week, I was struck with the idea that many fans of any sport tend to fall into three age groups.

There are the years when you are younger than the players involved and see them to one degree or another as models of what you'd like to become.

There are the middle years when the athletes of the day are your contemporaries and when you may be a tad regretful that you're not going to be their colleague.

Finally, there comes a time when you are older than those down on the field and when, just maybe, you are looking for consolation in club golf or tennis or in corporate titles.

For me, Jackie Robinson was part of that first, most optimistic period. But all that I've learned about him while growing older has added to my appreciation of his achievements with the Dodgers from 1947 through 1956.

He was a gifted black college athlete more involved in football, track and basketball than baseball and a man with competitive fire and temper, prone to take and return offense.

He overcame strong initial opposition by some members of the Dodger team. He played through racist taunts, spiking attempts and beanballs by rival teams, death threats and segregated hotels and restaurants in many of the cities the team visited.

He did so while keeping his promise to the Dodgers that he would curb his temper and not fight or even answer back for three years.

He became National League rookie of the year in 1947; batting champion and most valuable player in 1949 and, more often than not, the key figure in six Dodger pennants (and two near misses) in 10 years.

His accomplishments on the field won him induction into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1962 but they are only part of his story, a description of the cause but not the effect.

The Jackie Robinson who took all the abuse and returned it, largely in the form of singles, doubles, stolen bases and clutch fielding plays, helped give all this country's races a better idea of what was possible and what was fair.

The fact that given a chance to play, Jackie Robinson could play and play so well made him the most popularly known and therefore the best argument for desegregation in so many other fields.

In the same way that his exploits on the basepaths expanded the tactical limits of the game, his overall success stretched the mindset of a generation.

In the circle of teen-age white sociologists in which I traveled, we got the message.

Roger Kahn, a sportswriter who covered the Dodgers of the early 1950s and later helped immortalize them in The Boys of Summer, summed up that Robinson achievement best in a recent television interview.

Asked about Jackie Robinson's contribution to his race, the former Herald Tribune reporter responded, His race was humanity; he did a lot for all of us.

The rest of society has caught up with baseball now, in great part because the game's march toward equality of opportunity never really has gone beyond the playing field.

There have been few black managers and there is none at present. There is only one black in a major league executive position, proportionately less than the number of blacks in such positions elsewhere in society, where the record is nothing to be proud of.

The reasons advanced for baseball's status quo, most recently by a Dodger executive this week, have a familiar ring.

We are told that black baseball players would rather follow other careers after their playing days are over. That sounds like a much earlier excuse, They're happy playing in their own league.

Doubt are raised about blacks' managerial skills; in the past, the issue was black courage: Throw at their heads and you'll scare the bleep out of them.

We could use a few more truly moral victories, both in and out of baseball.

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