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Baseball legend comes to life
Robinson's story resonates with kids
Mike Wiley performs as baseball legend Jackie Robinson on Tuesday at Patrick Henry Elementary School. Here, he mimes riding a horse as he talks about other “firsts” in the sports world for African Americans, such as winning the Kentucky Derby. (Contributed photo)
Thursday, February 14, 2013
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
LeBron James and Venus and Serena Williams would not be where they are today if not for Jackie Robinson and other black athletes who broke the color barrier, an actor wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform with the number 42 told Patrick Henry Elementary students Tuesday.
Mike Wiley performed a one-man show titled “Jackie Robinson: A Game Apart” in the school auditorium before an estimated 350-400 or more second- through fifth-graders. Piedmont Arts sponsored the show.
In 1947, Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier that had segregated the sport for more than 50 years. He helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six pennants and one World Series championship in 10 years. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, according to the official Jackie Robinson website.
Wiley asked students to explain what color barrier means.
The second student who answered came pretty close to what Wiley was looking for, and with a few follow-up questions, the full answer emerged.
For the rest of the program as he recounted blacks’ struggles during segregation, Wiley tried to help the students experience what he was talking about. He didn’t quote a lot of facts and figures. Instead he told stories and acted out skits with the help of students and teachers who volunteered to come on stage.
Among other things, he told jokes, used many voices and faces (to stir laughter), asked questions and asked the audience to sing along with him. He stayed in character throughout and frequently had volunteers play reversed roles (for instance, white children playing black roles, males playing females, or vice versa).
He sang parts of the song “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” repeatedly throughout the program. According to Baseball-Almanac.com, “The song was originally written and performed by Buddy Johnson, who recorded it in 1949 and saw it peak on the charts at number 13. That same year, Count Basie re-recorded (it) on the Victor Label and his version became a true baseball standard.”
Here’s part of the song that Wiley used. (Students were asked to sing the lines in bold type.)
Did you see Jackie Robinson hit that ball?
It went zoomin cross the left field wall.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.
And when he swung his bat,
the crowd went wild,
because he knocked that ball a solid mile.
Yeah boy, yes, yes. Jackie hit that ball.
Before Wiley began doing skits about Robinson’s life, he did skits about the post-Civil War era and the Jim Crow era of segregation. For instance, he did skits about black people not being served in restaurants or not being able to ride in the white section on public transportation.
He mentioned the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court case, which, according to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, upheld in 1896 that that segregation was legal as long as blacks were given services, such as schools or lodging, that were described as “separate but equal.”
Wiley recounted the struggles of Robinson and his family through a series of skits and stories about his sharecropper father abandoning the family, and his mother moving the family to California during a period of migration and renaissance that produced important black musicians, singers, scientists and writers.
Wiley talked and did skits about the racism the Robinson family faced in California (such as snooty neighborhood committees encouraging the family to move, rock-throwings, black residents being allowed to swim in town pools only on a certain day of the week). Wiley told how Robinson as a teen became a member of a gang but how family members and his minister helped get him back on track.
The only job Robinson’s brother Mack could get was sweeping the streets of Pasadena — despite Mack’s having won an Olympic medal, according to Wiley.
He also talked about Jackie Robinson getting in big trouble in the Army for sitting in the white section of the Army bus and some of the indignities that Robinson endured after he began to play with the Dodgers.
Wiley also told about other black athletes who were discriminated against and/or helped pave the way for breaking the color barrier. Jockey Isaac Murphy won three Kentucky Derby championships before jockey clubs were formed and black jockeys were weeded out of the sport. Rube Foster founded the Negro National League, the first successful professional baseball league for black players, according to biography.com.
Ohio Wesleyan star baseball catcher Charles Thomas was an inspiration to head coach Branch Rickey, who later became president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and approached Robinson to play for the Dodgers.
According to blackcollegenines.com, Thomas was denied lodging at a hotel in South Bend, Ind., when the 1903 Ohio Wesleyan team was in town to play the University of Notre Dame. Rickey was able to convince the front desk clerk to allow Thomas to stay in Rickey’s hotel room. When Rickey arrived at his room, he found Thomas lamenting the color of his skin. The memory remained vivid in Rickey’s mind for more than 40 years.
Wiley also did a skit about heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis’ 1938 boxing rematch with German Max Schmeling, which, according to National Public Radio, is believed to have had the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast.
Patrick Henry Elementary students laughed frequently throughout the program with Wiley, and dozens of students raised their hands to volunteer to come on stage for skits or to answer questions posed by Wiley.
From the stage, he answered a few questions from the students after the show, such as: Did he make all those voices? Yes. He’s been doing it since he was a boy, and it takes practice, practice, practice. Did Jackie Robinson wear 42? Yes. Why did Wiley let the children come on stage? To experience the part of history he was talking about. Was he wearing a real Dodgers uniform? No.
“I liked how he would do the different voices.” student Conner Harlowe, said after the program. “I learned if you stand up for yourself, you will probably get something completed.”
Student Isabelle Hairston said her favorite part was Wiley singing about Jackie Robinson.
Student Caroline Westphalen said, “I learned back in the old times blacks had it really rough, and a bunch of people had to work hard to make changes.”
Conner, Isabelle and Caroline are students in Roxanne Collins’ third-grade class.
Wiley, 40, of Pittsboro, N.C., and formerly of Roanoke, said in an interview that other people have said his show is palatable and appeals to people of all nationalities and races.
“It’s an opportunity to learn about part of history that is painful in some ways and uplifting in many ways,” he said.
Wiley said he hopes his show supplements what teachers are doing in the classroom and that it piques students’ interest to learn more black history. He tours nationally with this show and other black history shows that he does, according to him and his website.
Heidi Pinkston, education coordinator at Piedmont Arts, said the program was an opportunity for students to learn about theater and history. She said Wiley performed the show at Carver Elementary and Piedmont Arts on Monday and at Campbell Court and Patrick Henry elementary schools on Tuesday.