Fifty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the "separate but equal" segregation doctrine.

That was too slow for Jackie Robinson, who had crashed the all-white Major League Baseball party seven years earlier. Nevertheless, both Robinson and the anti-segregation ruling were commemorated Saturday, as the Salt Lake Singers were host to Colorado Springs.

It was a good night for baseball, but a great night for pondering where society might have been had those two events not occurred.

It was Robinson who drew racism and inequality to the attention of the public and courts. But it was the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that made sure nothing could legally impede a person's progress based on race, ever again.

Carl Long and George Altman were in town this week to talk about their playing days in the Negro League. It was all part of yet another Jackie Robinson commemoration, sponsored by the Utah State Bar, Young Lawyers Division.

Is this overkill? Is there such thing as too much Jackie Robinson? Not if you like sports. Or equality. If you're a fan of fairness, you're a fan of Robinson. Revisiting the Robinson story is like revisiting Independence Day.

You never want to let it pass unnoticed.

Besides, history wouldn't allow it.

Altman played with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League before moving on to a Major League career that included All-Star appearances in 1961 and 1962. He was in high school in North Carolina when word reached the South that an African-American had been signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It wasn't a thrill so much as an epiphany.

"All the time your parents were telling you to go to school, to stay in school and believe, and you could possibly be a schoolteacher. But not everybody's cut out to be a schoolteacher, and this kind of broadened the horizons," said Altman. "After Jackie, people were saying, 'Hey, now I can be anything I want to be.' "

Now they could be like Jackie Robinson.

In that sense, then, Robinson's story isn't merely a baseball or sports story.

"No, no, no," continued Altman. "It's an evolutionary story. Jackie was a true pioneer and we're all grateful to him."

Like Altman, Long was younger than Robinson, but he did play in a winter league with Robinson. In those days players would go from the regular Major League season to a schedule of "barnstorming" games throughout the South, where weather was warm.

Long, who played for the Birmingham Black Barons, was the first black player in the Carolina League. He remembers traveling with Robinson and other well-known players such as Minnie Minoso, Luke Easter and Roy Campanella, to towns for games in the winters of '53 and '54. Though he and Robinson weren't on the same team, all the players hung together "drinking sodas and talking."

That was partly by choice and partly of necessity. At that early date, black players couldn't stay in white hotels or drink from the white water fountains.

Long chuckles as he remembers being upset by racism, but "the ball was white, so I jumped all over it."

But all of that was to change. The wheels of justice were turning in the courts, as fair-minded people — including a young black lawyer named Thurgood Marshall — argued in the early 1950s that anything that was racially "separate but equal" didn't mean equal. Soon all ballplayers would be staying in the same hotels and playing in the same leagues.

Does Robinson deserve credit for that? According to Long, many in the Negro League could have matched Robinson on a talent level. But Robinson was more than talent. He was spirit, determination and courage. He was, according to both Long and Altman, a fierce competitor but a quiet man. A man who dealt with the racial slurs, kept his dignity and changed history.

"A whole lot of guys could have played in the big leagues. Jackie was just in the right place at the right time," said Long.

A time when integration occurred, baseball got better and laws changed.

Thus, a half-century later, the lawyers of the Utah State Bar and Jackie Robinson linked up for a celebration. We can thank Robinson for joining the Major Leagues and paving the way for other African American players. And we can thank certain lawyers and judges of a half-century ago for making sure he stayed there.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com