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Black or white, let’s be on the same team

There are no easy answers to racism. But we know from experience that racist attitudes weaken when white and black people have opportunities to be on the same team.

When we’re on the same team, we’re united to win together, even if individual team members happen to vary in race, age, gender, hometown or some other characteristic. In the context of the team’s goals, those individual traits become secondary.

Professional sports have been instrumental in bringing together fans of multiple races, and a defining event in the integration of sports has a Youngstown connection. The two main players in the historic 1946 moment were Jackie Robinson, the first black player in mainstream professional baseball (who became a star and was inducted into the Hall of Fame), and George Shuba, his white teammate from Youngstown.

The two were teammates with the Montreal Royals, the Minor League affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson had been a top player in the Negro Leagues, as he and other black athletes weren’t allowed in Major League Baseball at the time. The Dodgers’ decision to bring in Robinson was a radical move that many fans, coaches and players — including some of Robinson’s own teammates — did not support. In fact, Robinson’s career was marked by racial insults and harassment, even though he was a star.

On April 18, 1946, in the opening game of his debut season, Robinson hit a home run with two Royals runners on base. He rounded the bags and was heading toward home, but neither of the two teammates who scored on the homer were waiting there to shake his hand. That was telling.

So was this: Shuba, the on-deck hitter, noticed there was no one to greet Robinson. So he stepped up to shake his teammate’s hand, just as the future Hall of Famer was crossing home. The handshake, captured in photographs, marked the first among black and white players on a professional diamond.

That routine handshake delivered a powerful statement — that race doesn’t need to separate us, whether we’re playing on the same baseball team, working for the same organization or living on the same planet. Shuba shoved the racism of his day aside when he stepped up to extend well-deserved congratulations to his teammate. He told us that the difference in his teammate’s skin color didn’t matter, and he was right.

“He could have been technicolor,” Shuba told an author years after the handshake. “It didn’t matter to me.”

Though the transition was not easy, professional baseball eventually dropped its whites-only rules, as did other sports and other segments of society. Athletes like Robinson won over many fans who weren’t black. Players like Shuba improved the experience for many players who weren’t white.

We can all learn a lesson from Robinson and Shuba. But to be in the position they were in, we need to get on the same team more often — in our workplaces, leisure activities, community affairs and the other playing fields of our lives.

That will take some effort. So many of our institutions — schools, churches, sports leagues, businesses — are not very diverse. So we will need to reach beyond our usual routines to start making interracial connections.

Fortunately, in a region like the Mahoning Valley, where racial and ethnic differences are celebrated and appreciated, there are opportunities to connect. Social media and short drives make those connections easier.

Still, starting and sustaining those same-team situations will be challenging. It will require some commitment, as Robinson demonstrated, and a willingness to go against the grain, as Shuba demonstrated.

In our view, those efforts will be well worth it. If we were on the same team more often, people from different races would get along much better, on and off the field.

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