Sixty-one years ago, a truly great athlete broke the color line in America's "National Pastime," which still resides near the core of our culture.
Now the question of whether Barack Obama can do the same for the American presidency has moved to center stage.
Simply put, Jackie Robinson was one of history's most gifted all-around athletes. He mastered five major sports -- football, baseball, basketball, tennis and track. As a complete performer, he may have been surpassed in the Twentieth Century only by the great Jim Thorpe.
It's hard to overstate the importance of Robinson's 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. In his first game, he went hitless in three at-bats. But he went on that season to become baseball's first Rookie of the Year. In a big league career that lasted through the 1956 season, he was voted into six All-Star games, played in six World Series, and was once chosen the league's Most Valuable Player.
Robinson was an excellent hitter, a superb fielder and a uniquely daring and successful base runner. He is still universally ranked among the greatest to ever play the game. He was exciting to watch -- especially when he stole home -- and gave baseball an entirely new dimension that had nothing to do with race.
Would the impact of his breaking the Big League color line have been diminished if he had not been such an astonishingly good athlete?
Absolutely. A mediocre career would have rendered Jackie Robinson's name a footnote, rather than the towering monument it remains today. The astonishing quality of his performance greatly accelerated the integration of all professional sports.
So now we must ask: how good is Barack Obama?
There are certain things he seems to share with Robinson. In the contract he signed with the Dodgers, Robinson was obliged to quietly absorb all the racial insults his teammates, the opposing teams and the public could throw at him. This he did with amazing grace.
When later he was free to speak out, he did so with eloquence and effect. He aligned himself with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Though later in life he worked for Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon, the quality of his career and his character served to mute much of the racial polarization that could have made the integration of baseball an ugly failure.
In the long run, Jackie Robinson's career became monumental because it transcended the issue of race.
Linking Obama with Robinson may seem stereotypical. But in the coming campaign, only one thing is certain: no stone will be left unthrown. Whether we want it or not, we are about to be shown just how deep the racial divide still cuts.
When confronted with Jeremiah Wright, Obama displayed remarkable skill. He has absorbed much of the testing brought on by Hillary Clinton. He's indicated he may be willing to reach out to Ralph Nader, and to other diverse constituencies, without which he cannot win.
Clearly Obama is a uniquely gifted speaker. He has thus far run an effective, well-organized campaign, raised big money from a wide range of sources, and sustained a straight face before a thoroughly bought, seriously deranged corporate media.
Obama now must face the Rovian swift-boating thugs of the mainstream GOP. He and his family will be horrifically tested. Does anyone doubt this will be the ugliest campaign in US history?
There are some things working in Obama's favor. Future historians may well note this as the turning point not only for an old way of doing politics, but for the age of white male leadership.
Given the total bust of the Bush Republicans, it's no accident this is the first election in which both a female and a person of color have had a chance to win. What about the Bush presidency would incline the electorate to go for another white guy?
Ironically, this inclination toward a gender/racial shift may have doomed the candidacy of John Edwards. He was clearly shafted by the corporate media, which wanted nothing to do with his populist message, and which was fixated from the start on a Clinton/Obama, white female/black male confrontation.
His southern accent and appeal to white male voters was widely assumed to be a trump card. But Edwards's campaign was haunted by the tainted legacy of failed and/or polarizing southern presidents, ranging from Johnson, Carter and Clinton to the southern Californians Nixon and Reagan, all culminating in the utterly catastrophic Texas Bushes.
History may record that in its anger and frustration, the American people finally turned toward a different blend of race and gender.
They may also see in Obama what Robinson's coach Leo Durocher saw in integrating baseball. In a legendary locker-room rant, Durocher ripped into some of his Dodger players for their blatant racism.
But then he yelled that Robinson would "make us all rich" by bringing millions of new customers to the ballparks.
Durocher could not have been more right. By virtue of both his demographics and his skill, Jackie Robinson took major league baseball into a whole new world of public excitement, acceptance and prosperity.
In a globalized millennium, Americans must also realize that a person of color in the White House could be essential to restoring our declining fortunes, dumped so deeply in the hole by those endless wars of testosterone and greed. The indicators are everywhere that the good will squandered by the Bush catastrophe could be at least partly restored with a demonstration of this nation's willingness to accept a new kind of leadership.
But Barack Obama cannot be ordinary, or even just really good. To win the presidency, he will have to be as even-tempered and controlled as Jackie Robinson. But he'll also have to be as daring and skilled a candidate as Robinson was an athlete, especially when it comes to the on-going attempts by the GOP to rig the processes of voter registration and electronic vote counting.
And if he does get to the White House, just a well-meaning effort won't cut it. A middling presidency is not enough.
In terms of war, the economy, the environment, energy, infrastructure, education, health care, corporate domination, election protection, and so much more, the United States is essentially in ruins. We have been sunk into a crisis on par with the ones that faced Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.
To truly succeed, Barack Obama -- in concert with all of us -- will need a combination of daring and ability that hasn't really been invented yet.
Sortof like Jackie Robinson stealing home, transforming the game of baseball, transcending the issue of race -- and much, much more.