Jackie Robinson’s legacy alive at SSU

Sonoma State first baseman Devon Zenn says he owes a debt of gratitude to Jackie Robinson. credit: Edgar Angelone / SSU

Sonoma State first baseman Devon Zenn says he owes a debt of gratitude to Jackie Robinson.
credit: Edgar Angelone / SSU


Oh, that any of us could have this kind of influence on someone.
Devon Zenn was born 20 years after Jackie Robinson died.

“In a way, I feel I owe this man my life,” said SSU’s 21-year-old first baseman.

Zenn’s mother is white. His father is black. For Zenn, Robinson’s impact was more than just being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues.

“He showed that black people and white people could live together,” Zenn said.

Yes, Zenn acknowledged, if Robinson hadn’t come along, there would have been some other African-American to accept the challenge. The world was moving that way in 1947. It is still moving that way. No matter. It’s provocative but nonetheless bar stool conversation to speculate whom else the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey would have picked to break the color barrier.

What is of more consequence to Zenn is this: Who could have done it with any more distinction, self-control and intelligence? Who could have provided a more compelling template of humanity than Robinson? Could any other black man have given white people more of a reason to get along and forget skin color?

I know I couldn’t have done what Robinson did, I told Zenn.

“I couldn’t have, either,” said the senior from Benicia. “He was under so much stress, 24 hours a day.”

For 10 years, the length of his big-league career.

Zenn shook his head at the unimaginable thought of dealing that long with death threats, race baiting and runners coming at him spikes-high.

“He had the weight of an entire race on his back,” Zenn said. “And then he had to play baseball, and he had to play it at a high level.”

The way Zenn mentioned it, it’s almost lost in the translation, Robinson’s ability to play the game. Even in the current movie, “42,” an effective dramatization of Robinson’s life, the film focuses more on the emotional and mental challenges. As it should. After all, if you have seen one movie home run you’ve seen them all. Yet, Robinson wouldn’t have created such an unending ripple if he wasn’t a career .311 hitter, a six-time All-Star, a National League MVP and batting champion, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

He did that with the weight of an entire race on his back. Knowing he wasn’t welcome. Zenn is thankful that he doesn’t have to face such ever-present hatred. But Zenn is not naïve. He knows it’s out there and he doesn’t need reminders. Nonetheless, a few years ago, he received one.

Zenn was playing amateur summer ball for the Eau Claire (Wis.) Express. Playing in Iowa, in a town he can’t remember, Zenn was walking on a sidewalk with three of his teammates, one of Mexican heritage and two other African-Americans. In the opposite direction, coming down the street, was a car driven by a man, with a woman in the passenger seat and two small children in the back seat.

“The woman reached out the window and flipped us off,” Zenn said.
Zenn’s first reaction was not Zen.

“I wanted to pick up a rock and throw it,” he said.

But he didn’t. Sure, Zenn was a bit embarrassed as he told his story, though his first response was a natural one to such a flagrant insult. There was a flash point, created in the heat of the moment, that could have turned ugly, er, uglier. Zenn restrained himself. And that’s another kind of progress. Anger was reduced to a pause and that pause led to a shrug.

“I asked my teammates if they saw it,” Zenn said. “They said they didn’t. And then I let it go.”

Intelligence won out over anger. For a very brief period, and on a comparatively minor scale, Zenn nonetheless felt what Robinson felt 66 years ago. He walked away from it, just as Robinson did. Outrage leaves people stuck on the emotion. Like Robinson, Zenn moved forward with dignity. As he still does.

With shrinking numbers of African-Americans in the Major Leagues, much has been made of young African-Americans turning to basketball and football rather than baseball. Does this bother Zenn?

“I can see why young black kids go for football and basketball,” Zenn said. “They are both high intensity, easy to follow. Baseball? It’s slow in comparison. It allows you more time to think. To me, I like the analysis.”

But does it bother Zenn? His answer would have made Jackie Robinson proud.

“With fewer blacks in the game,” Zenn said, “it has created opportunities for other non-whites, like the Dominicans, Cubans, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans. Those players have worked hard for it. They deserve it.”

Zenn is not jealous or resentful or bitter. Freedom to choose is a right all cultures should enjoy, in or out of sport.

“Some of those players from the Caribbean,” Zenn said, “they probably came from worse backgrounds than Jackie did.”
Zenn said that as a compliment, that those players now are experiencing something akin to their American dream. Just as African-Americans did in baseball more than 60 years ago. They put in the sweat. They earned it. They just wanted the chance. Zenn has a deep appreciation that they have that chance.

Once, white players owned the game. Then black players like Mays and Banks and McCovey and Aaron and Gibson dominated baseball; it was even called baseball’s Golden Age because of them. Now Latinos are providing the standard. Devon Zenn could view the recent shift with resentment. He could feel his culture invaded, taken over. Just as the whites once did.

Instead he is acting like Jackie Robinson. He is color-blind. Baseball, like America, is the land of opportunity. For everyone. Not just a select few.

“If Jackie were here right now,” I said, “he would tell you, ‘Thank you.’”

“And I would tell Jackie,” Zenn said, “thank you.”

Oh, that any of us could have this kind of influence over someone.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com

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