Jackie Robinson’s estate risks coloring his memory (pun intended)

Word came down Friday that t-shirts in memory of Greg Halman will be available in June. Mike Carp first announced that the shirts would be available as far back as February, so why the delay?

Turns out, he ran into legal issues stemming from his use of the above quote from Jackie Robinson.

I’ll keep this brief, because I prefer not to dwell on Halman’s tragic story, but here’s how things went down:

[Carp] offered up some news about those Greg Halman t-shirts he’s having made and which should be available in Mariners Team Stores come June.

It turns out, the Jackie Robinson Foundation declined to allow Carp to use the quote from Robinson that was initially put on the shirts. It took a month for Carp to hear back from the foundation, which contacted him just before the team left for Japan in mid-March.

Now listen here, Jackie Robinson’s estate. Let’s review the use to which the quote would have gone, via Geoff Baker’s Mariners Blog on the Seattle Times website:

Carp had planned to donate proceeds from shirt sales to Halman’s family, which incurred funeral expenses and have ongoing legal costs associated with Jason Halman, younger brother of Greg, who was arrested for the ballplayer’s November killing. Jason Halman remains in custody and under psychiatric evaluation in The Netherlands.

Now that we’ve established that Jackie Robinson’s estate is guilty of general dickery (General Dickery!), I’ll take the opportunity to be a little dickish back.

I hate to be the one to say it, but your one* Jackie Robinson quote is terrible.

*OK, it’s not the only one, but it’s the one I hear over and over, and it’s first on this page and this page and this page – which just happen to be the first three pages that come up when you Google ‘Jackie Robinson quotes’

I first noticed how terrible it is when I heard it over the loudspeakers at Safeco on Jackie Robinson day, which also happened to be my first Mariners game of the year (since I know you’re curious, the Mariners won). You may not have noticed how bad it is when you first read it – it’s so vanilla you might not have noticed much of anything – so please take a moment to consider it once more:

A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.

Leaving aside the elegant awkward exception clause thing, let’s consider what Robinson actually said.

First, note the language: ‘important’ and ‘impact’ are both neutral terms that indicate neither whether they are good or bad. Do you know who had an impact on other lives? Stalin. So Stalin was important. Of course, I didn’t need to tell you that, but neither did Jackie Robinson.

But maybe with some additional work, we can tease out a positive moral lesson. Thought experiment: Quick, imagine a life with the least possible impact on any other life. I’ll give it a go first – let’s say someone born in a vegetative state who never leaves it – but still, try it for yourself. Would that person be unimportant? According to Jackie Robinson, if that person truly had no impact, yes.

Of course, given what we know – or even what we don’t know – about chaos theory and the butterfly effect, it would be a remarkable feat for even the most bed-ridden of lifelong vegetables to have literally no impact on even a single other life. And if someone did manage, well, it would be rather unusual in its own right, and that would certainly be important (remember: important is a neutral term).

We can thus conclude that every life is important according to Robinson. His quote, then, cannot be defining which lives are important, but rather the way in which they are important: the fact that, by necessity, they impact other lives. And what makes those lives important in turn? Well, they too, impact other lives. Which are important because they impact other lives, and so on.

In other words, Jackie tells us, the world is simply a framework within which lives-impact-lives, people-impact-people, with no way to escape the merry-go-round. No greater purpose. No higher calling. No reason for being. Wake up in the morning, brush your teeth with a bottle of Jack, and – Mazel Tov – you’ve affected the global economy. You can die happy, because your life is important.

What an uplifting message! But why would anyone quote this? Why would anyone do anything?

And now we’re on a little merry-go-round of our own.

To be clear: I don’t mean to pick on Jackie Robinson. Almost everything you say, when picked apart, is ultimately meaningless.

But I do mean to pick on Robinson’s estate, which apparently felt the need to trademark (copyright? patent? whatever, I’ll find out in law school) this particular quote and then monetize it to the extent that it could not be used on a t-shirt memorializing a young ballplayer whose proceeds are meant to support a shattered family coping with a sudden and tragic loss.


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