By Peter Jeff
The Leadership Mints Guy
Here’s an idea to strengthen the bonds of friendship in the workplace.
The opposing crowd taunts the first baseman. The rants turn to jeers and sneers. The scathing now has less to do with baseball and more to do with racism in America. It’s 1947. And the first baseman is the first black to play in major league baseball: Jackie Robinson.
You’re the on-field team captain. You feel those jeers — like so many spears– piercing the pride of your teammate standing only a few feet away from your shortstop position. You wince at the pain in hearing the rants of a racially troubled crowd on a southern baseball diamond in Cincinnati, just over the border from Kentucky a long way from the friendly confines of the Brooklyn Dodgers in New York.
Here’s what the team captain did. Shortstop Pee Wee Reese acted like a compassionate leader. Amid the taunts and racial slurs from both the opposing players and fans, Reese walked confidently over to first base and stood next to Robinson. Then Reese did what a loving leader would do. He put his arm on Robinson’s shoulder and faced the crowd.
The fans got the message. Give Jackie Robinson a chance. Respect the individual. Treat him like a ballplayer. Boo if he makes an error like you would any other player. But don’t jeer or sneer. See him wearing a color – a blue Brooklyn Dodger uniform. Not being a color. See him as a player. Not as a symbol. See him as a man. Not at target. The crowd quieted.
And Robinson went on to star in the major leagues, moving over to second base and teaming up with Reese at shortstop for one of the most formidable double play combinations over the next five, pennant-winning years.
Today, that gesture of leadership — Pee Wee Reese standing with his teammate Jackie Robinson– shoulder to shoulder– a white man and a black man seemingly lifting up all of mankind in a gesture of humanity — is captured in a monument erected in Brooklyn, New York in 2005– more than a half century after the gesture in 1947 that foretold the Civil Rights Act that wouldn’t be signed into law until 17 years later. That gesture, says baseball author Roger Kahn of Boys of the Summer fame, “gets my vote as baseball’s finest moment.”
Pee Wee Reese –the leader– did what his gut told him to do. Even though, it was not in his own best self interests. It is instructive to note that Jackie Robinson’s primary position was shortstop — the same position that Pee Wee Reese played.
So when Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, Pee Wee Reese could have felt threatened. He didn’t. He welcomed the competition even as so many of his teammates shunned Robinson. In fact in 1947 after sports writer Jimmy Cannon spent a day with the first black pro baseball player, Cannon concluded that Jackie Robinson “was the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports.”
When Robinson first showed up at spring training in a Dodger’s uniform, it was Pee Wee Reese who first welcomed him and shook his hand. Reese would later recall that was the first time he had ever shaken the hand of a black man. He could have felt uncomfortable like so many of his other teammates but he didn’t. “I felt it was my duty at the team captain to welcome all the new players,” Reese said. Pee Wee Reese did his duty and then some.
But Pee Wee Reese never hopped up on his soap box to preach or take a bow for his gesture. To him, he was only acting in his self-interest. He wanted to make a living playing baseball and he wanted to win. He saw in Jackie Robinson a winner who could help his team and himself. Pee Wee Reese saw the value that Jackie Robinson brought to the team, not his liabilities. And that’s the mark of a leader, turning jeers into cheers.
Be compassionate to keep your leadership thinking in mint condition.
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