By John Moore
To look at young Dexter Fowler’s charmed life, you’d think the Colorado Rockies center fielder has very little in common with his pioneering predecessor, Jackie Robinson. They are both African-American major-league baseball players from Georgia. But the similarities would seem to end there.
And if Robinson were alive today, he might say that is a very good thing.
Robinson was the son of a sharecropper who abandoned his family. Fowler’s father was an executive for Kimberly-Clark who tried to instill in his son the lessons of Robinson’s life. But to a young Fowler, born 39 years after Robinson became the first African-American to play in the modern-day big leagues, 1947 might have been as far back in time as Ancient Greece.
“My dad and my uncles used to talk about Jackie Robinson all the time,” Fowler said. “You’re sitting there there listening, and you are like, ‘Who is this guy? Who is Jackie Robinson?’ As a kid, you kind of just brush it off because, you know — I’m looking at Ken Griffey Jr.”
Robinson made $5,000 in 1947, the year he ended 80 years of major-league segregation. The year he endured racial taunts, death threats and even a boycott by his own Brooklyn Dodgers teammates. Fowler made $390,000 the year he was called up to the big leagues, with only three weeks remaining in the 2008 season. And that was just two weeks after Fowler proudly represented his country in the Beijing Olympic Games.
What Robinson faced in 1947 is almost unknowable to any young boy — of any color — with a big-league dream today. That’s why it is important, Fowler said, that the Denver Center Theatre Company is staging the family friendly play “Jackie & Me,” through Dec. 22. It focuses on a 12-year-old white boy from Pittsburgh named Joey who is being bullied because of his Polish descent. When the boy goes back in time to 1947, he not only witnesses Robinson break baseball’s color barrier, but the boy’s own skin color changes in the process, giving him a first-hand perspective on old-school prejudice and discrimination.
Dexter Fowler wears No. 24 - Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 reversed - in honor of his hero, Ken Griffey Jr. Photo courtesy Ryan McKee.
Fowler grew up in suburban Atlanta in relative mixed-race privilege. “I hung out with the white kids, the black kids, everybody,” he said. “I’m pretty well-rounded. I went to three different high schools in four years. First I went to an almost all-white school; then I went to an almost all-black school; and then I went to a mixed school. So I’ve seen it all.”
What he didn’t see much of, he is happy to say, is overt racism. “It happened, but you didn’t think much of it,” Fowler said. “It was pretty much over by high school. It’s definitely not as in-your-face today as it was back in Jackie’s time.”
Fowler’s mother was a teacher, and his parents had a rule: “You have to get good grades before you can play any sport,” Fowler said, “so we were very focused on that.” By the time he graduated from high school, he added, “I could have gone to any Ivy League school I wanted to.”
Fowler turned down Harvard, and as he tells the story, he doesn’t seen to fully appreciate that … well, no one turns down Harvard. Fowler did, to join the Colorado Rockies’ minor-league organization at age 19. Three years later, he was an Olympian. Two weeks after that, he was promoted to the big-league team in Denver.
Robinson, who was unofficially credited with stealing home a remarkable 19 times, might get a chuckle out of the story of Fowler’s major-league debut. Fowler was brought in as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the 10th inning and was picked off first base. Since then, Fowler has averaged 17 steals a seasoon, just under Robinson’s career average of 19.7. On April 27, 2009, Fowler tied a modern-day rookie record when he stole five bases in one game.
2012 was Fowler’s breakout season, when he batted .300 and drove in 53 runs. With that kind of success comes increased market value, and Fowler has been the subject of inevitable trade rumors ever since.
2012 was also the year the Robinson film “42” was released. It made vivid in Fowler’s mind all of the lessons his father and uncles had tried to instill in him years before.
“I felt a bunch of different emotions watching that movie,” said Fowler, who saw “42” while the Rockies were out of town. “I went outside after it was over to flag down a taxi — and the taxi came,” he said. “I was thinking to myself that, back then, an African-American like Jackie couldn’t even do that.”
From left: Justin Walvoord, Aaron M. Davidson and William Oliver Watkins in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s “Jackie & Me,” playing through Dec. 22. Photo by Jennifer M. Koskinen.
As the movie — and playwright Steven Dietz’s play currently onstage at the Denver Center — make plain, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to be the first modern-day black major-leaguer not because he was necessarily the best player available. Most would contend that was Josh Gibson. Rickey chose Robinson because he needed a player talented enough to succeed, but with the temperament to endure the slings and arrows of fans, opponents, teammates and even umpires. Rickey chose Robinson because he had the strength not to fight back. Robinson was the National League’s first-ever Rookie of the Year, he later won a World Series and was elected into baseball’s Hall of Fame. By his example, he opened the doors for all other black players to follow.
And Fowler says flat-out that he could not have endured what Robinson endured.
“Oh no, not at all,” Fowler said. “I don’t think God could have picked a better person to do it. I don’t think I could have handled it. It definitely takes a strong individual to do that.”
It is perhaps Robinson’s greatest legacy that Fowler already has made almost $8 million in five full seasons as a major-league baseball player.
And it is perhaps partly Robinson’s legacy that Fowler “can’t really recall a time” when he ever felt the direct sting of racism. That he is happily married to a woman born in Iran — a marriage that would have been illegal in the United States before 1967.
Fowler credits God and his family for his abundant blessings. But now that he is older, and just days away from becoming a first-time father with his wife at their off-season home in Salt Lake City, Fowler understands that Jackie Robinson deserves a place on that list.
“As you get older, you definitely respect the sacrifices Jackie Robinson made even more,” Fowler said.
That’s why he gets a kick out of the literal thread that now stitches Robinson directly to Fowler, right down to his No. 24 jersey.
Fowler wears No. 24 in tribute to his hero, the future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. What Fowler only learned of recently was the small tribute Griffey made to Robinson that changed baseball back in 1997, when Fowler was only 11.
Major League Baseball permanently retired Robinson’s No. 42 for all teams back on April 15, 1997, honoring the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier. Griffey flipped his No. 24 jersey that day and played wearing No. 42. Years later, Major League Baseball decreed that every player on every team should wear No. 42 on all games played every April 15: Jackie Robinson Day.
When Robinson took the field in on April 15, 1947, attendance at Ebbets Field was 26,623 — and more than 14,000 of them were black. But it was impossible not to pick out the only black player on the field. So all baseball players now wear No. 42 on April 15 — with no names affixed — both to honor Robinson’s legacy and to further the notion that all players — and peoples — are equal.
And if a 12-year old like the boy in the play “Jackie & Me” attends a game on any given April 15 and happens to ask why all the players are wearing No. 42, Fowler said, then that will be a good thing.
“The best advice I can give kids is to go back and read about Jackie Robinson,” he said, “because then you’ll get a better understanding of what it was like for him, how the world has changed, how far we have come — and how far we need to go.”
Call it, if not the circle, then “the diamond of life.”
Asked what Robinson might think of the hundreds of African-American players who have followed him, and of the baseball’s $3.2 million average annual salary, Fowler said, “I think Jackie Robinson is looking down at us with a smile on his face.
“He’s delighted, and it’s up to us to keep it going. Now we have to make a legacy for the younger guys.”
John Moore is the Denver Center’s Associate Director of Content Strategy. He supervised nightly baseball coverage for The National Sports Daily in New York City and helped conceive and implement The Denver Post’s coverage of the Colorado Rockies and Major League Baseball from 1993 through 2000. Twitter: moorejohn. Phone: 303-893-6003. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his arts and culture coverage at: Denver CenterStage and CultureWest.
“Jackie & Me” ticket information:
When: Through Dec. 22
Where: At The Space Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets in the Denver Center complex
Showtimes: Generally there are public performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays; 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 1:30 p.m. Sundays.
Tickets: 303-893-4100 or visit the Denver Center’s web site
More “Jackie & Me” news coverage:
Video: Watch as the cast of “Jackie & Me” takes a field trip to a Lakewood batting cage, and gets a tour of Coors Field.
Video and story: The making of the coolest stage floor … maybe ever
Meet the cast videos: Here’s a link to our full YouTube playlist
Profile: Stage manager Lyle Raper: She wields her wit like a baseball bat