RESTRAIN YOURSELF

 



Chapter 6 

RESTRAIN YOURSELF


I have observed that those who have accomplished the greatest results are those who “keep under the body”; are those who never grow excited or lose self-control, but are always calm, self-possessed, patient, and polite.

—BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

People who knew Jackie Robinson as a young man probably wouldn’t have predicted that they’d one day see him become the first black player in Major League Baseball. Not that he wasn’t talented, or that the idea of eventually integrating white baseball was inconceivable, it’s that he wasn’t exactly known for his restraint and poise.

   As a teenager, Robinson ran with a small gang of friends who regularly found themselves in trouble with local police. He challenged a fellow student to a fight at a junior college picnic for using a slur. In a basketball game, he surreptitiously struck a hard-fouling white opponent with the ball so forcefully that the kid bled everywhere. He was arrested more than once for arguing with and challenging police, who he felt treated him unfairly.

   Before he started at UCLA, he spent the night in jail (and had a gun drawn on him by an officer) for nearly fighting a white man who’d insulted his friends. And in addition to rumors of inciting protests against racism, Jackie Robinson effectively ended his career as a military officer at Camp Hood in 1944 when a bus driver attempted to force him to sit in the back in spite of laws that forbade segregation on base buses. By arguing and cursing at the driver and then directly challenging his commanding officer after the fracas, Jackie set in motion a series of events that led to a court-martial. Despite being acquitted, he was discharged shortly afterward.

   It’s not just understandable and human that he did this; it was probably the right thing to do. Why should he let anyone else treat him that way? No one should have to stand for that.

   Except sometimes they do. Are there not goals so important that we’d put up with anything to achieve them?

   When Branch Rickey, the manager and owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, scouted Jackie to potentially become the first black player in baseball, he had one question: Do you have the guts? “I’m looking,” Rickey told him, “for a ball player with the guts not to fight back.” In fact, in their famous meeting, Rickey playacted the abuse that Robinson was likely to experience if he accepted Rickey’s challenge: a hotel clerk refusing him a room, a rude waiter in a restaurant, an opponent shouting slurs. This, Robinson assured him, he was ready to handle.

   There were plenty of players Rickey could have gone with. But he needed one who wouldn’t let his ego block him from seeing the bigger picture.

   As he started in baseball’s farm system, then in the pros, Robinson faced more than just slights from service staff or reticent players. There was an aggressive, coordinated campaign to libel, boo, provoke, freeze out, attack, maim, or even kill. In his career, he was hit by more than seventy-two pitches, nearly had his Achilles tendon taken out by players who aimed their spikes at him, and that says nothing of the calls he was cheated out of and the breaks of the game that didn’t go his way. Yet Jackie Robinson held to his unwritten pact with Rickey, never giving into explosive anger—however deserved. In fact, in nine years in the league, he never hit another player with his fist.

   Athletes seem spoiled and hotheaded to us today, but we have no concept of what the leagues were like then. In 1956, Ted Williams, one of the most revered and respected players in the history of the game, was once caught spitting at his fans. As a white player he could not only get away with this, he later told reporters, “I’m not a bit sorry for what I did. I was right and I’d spit again at the same people who booed me today . . . Nobody’s going to stop me from spitting.” For a black player, this sort of behavior would have been not only unthinkable but shortsighted beyond comprehension. Robinson had no such freedom—it would have ended not only his career, but set back his grand experiment for a generation.

   Jackie’s path called for him to put aside both his ego and in some respects his basic sense of fairness and rights as a human being. Early in his career, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, was particularly brutal in his taunting during a game. “They’re waiting for you in the jungles, black boy!” he yelled over and over. “We don’t want you here, nigger.” Not only did Jackie not respond—despite, as he later wrote, wanting to “grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist”—a month later he agreed to take a friendly photo with Chapman to help save the man’s job.

   The thought of touching, posing with such an asshole, even sixty years removed, almost turns the stomach. Robinson called it one of the most difficult things he ever did, but he was willing to because it was part of a larger plan. He understood that certain forces were trying to bait him, to ruin him. Knowing what he wanted and needed to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate in order do it. He shouldn’t have had to, but he did.

   Our own path, whatever we aspire to, will in some ways be defined by the amount of nonsense we are willing to deal with. Our humiliations will pale in comparison to Robinson’s, but it will still be hard. It will still be tough to keep our self-control.

   The fighter Bas Rutten sometimes writes the letter R on both his hands before fights—for the word rustig, which means “relax” in Dutch. Getting angry, getting emotional, losing restraint is a recipe for failure in the ring. You cannot, as John Steinbeck once wrote to his editor, “[lose] temper as a refuge from despair.” Your ego will do you no favors here, whether you’re struggling with a publisher, with critics, with enemies, or a capricious boss. It doesn’t matter that they don’t understand or that you know better. It’s too early for that. It’s too soon.

   Oh, you went to college? That doesn’t mean the world is yours by right. But it was the Ivy League? Well, people are still going to treat you poorly, and they will still yell at you. You have a million dollars or a wall full of awards? That doesn’t mean anything in the new field you’re trying to tackle.

   It doesn’t matter how talented you are, how great your connections are, how much money you have. When you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you will be subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on it.

   In this scenario, ego is the absolute opposite of what is needed. Who can afford to be jerked around by impulses, or believe that you’re god’s gift to humanity, or too important to put up with anything you don’t like?

   Those who have subdued their ego understand that it doesn’t degrade you when others treat you poorly; it degrades them.

   Up ahead there will be: Slights. Dismissals. Little fuck yous. One-sided compromises. You’ll get yelled at. You’ll have to work behind the scenes to salvage what should have been easy. All this will make you angry. This will make you want to fight back. This will make you want to say: I am better than this. I deserve more.

   Of course, you’ll want to throw that in other people’s faces. Worse, you’ll want to get in other people’s faces, people who don’t deserve the respect, recognition, or rewards they are getting. In fact, those people will often get perks insteadof you. When someone doesn’t reckon you with the seriousness that you’d like, the impulse is to correct them. (As we all wish to say: Do you know who I am?! ) You want to remind them of what they’ve forgotten; your ego screams for you to indulge it.

   Instead, you must do nothing. Take it. Eat it until you’re sick. Endure it. Quietly brush it off and work harder. Play the game. Ignore the noise; for the love of God, do not let it distract you. Restraint is a difficult skill but a critical one. You will often be tempted, you will probably even be overcome. No one is perfect with it, but try we must.

   It is a timeless fact of life that the up-and-coming must endure the abuses of the entrenched. Robinson was twenty-eight when he started with the Dodgers, and he’d already paid plenty of dues in life as both a black man and a soldier. Still, he was forced to do it again. It’s a sad fact of life that new talents are regularly missed, and even when recognized, often unappreciated. The reasons always vary, but it’s a part of the journey.

   But you’re not able to change the system until after you’ve made it. In the meantime, you’ll have to find some way to make it suit your purposes—even if those purposes are just extra time to develop properly, to learn from others on their dime, to build your base and establish yourself.

   As Robinson succeeded, after he had proved himself as the Rookie of the Year and as an MVP, and as his spot on the Dodgers was certain, he began to more clearly assert himself and his boundaries as a player and as a man. Having carved out his space, he felt that he could argue with umpires, he could throw his shoulder if he needed to make a player back off or to send a message.

   No matter how confident and famous Robinson became, he never spit on fans. He never did anything that undermined his legacy. A class act from opening day until the end, Jackie Robinson was not without passion. He had a temper and frustrations like all of us do. But he learned early that the tightrope he walked would tolerate only restraint and had no forgiveness for ego.

   Honestly, not many paths do.





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