When he was in sixth grade, Tony Kemp had a school project – report on a person of importance.
He chose Jackie Robinson, taking his travel league baseball uniform and using duct tape on the back to put Robinson’s name on his jersey, honoring the man who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
So tonight, when he and the rest of Major League Baseball uniformed personnel wear Robinson’s No 42 as baseball honors Robinson, understand this is a deep and personal issue for the Oakland second baseman.
“This runs back to when I was 12 years old,” Kemp said Friday on a video conference call. I realized in my class project how big and how monumental Jackie Robinson meant to the game of baseball and what he did and even what he played through. So, every time I put on that 42 or hear the name `Jackie Robinson.’ It gives me chills.
“It gives me a certain feeling in my heart that I really can’t explain, because I wouldn’t be able to play this game that I love without him.”
Kemp was one of the driving forces in the A’s decision to stage a one-game protest over the state of social injustice and systematic racism.
He sees it as another link in a chain of activism that goes back to No. 42, whose last public appearance was at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between the A's and the Reds when he used his platform to push for a Black man to manage in the big leagues. Two years later, Frank Robinson was that man, but Robinson died of a heart attack just nine days after his A's-Reds appearance.
“Like I told the guys, I said `we’re all activists, whether you like it or not,’” Kemp said. “That’s making a stance. I was on Twitter, and I saw Jackie Robinson’s daughter saying that he would be proud to see what we’ve been doing. And that’s what it’s all about, being able to give people hope that these issues can end and we can be better as a nation.”
Manager Bob Melvin said that just waking up Friday and knowing baseball was going to celebrate Jackie Robinson in the wake of the protest was special.
"I think it's a perfect time to accentuate the message in what he had to go through," Melvin said of Robinson. "I know I felt it differently when I got up this morning. I've always known his plight, but I felt it more today. And I think that has a lot to do with the message and the movement."
Mike Fiers, who started and won Wednesday’s game in Texas, said the decision Thursday to forego playing made him appreciate once again that he’s surrounded by players who can hold open conversations on difficult topics and reach unanimity.
“It was a group decision, and that’s why we made it,” Fiers said. “If everyone wasn’t in on it, I don’t think it would have been made. I had a great conversation. There are definitely topics that are touchy and not comfortable, but we talked about it like men and came to the conclusion of not playing.”
Melvin said he was impressed by the way his team used the moment.
"The rhetoric, the talk, the back-and-forth, between the guys was really impresssive," Melvin said. "We have a really tight clubouse, and I think something like that can make you even closer.
Fiers singled out three of the team’s Black players, Kemp, Marcus Semien and Khris Davis, who have kept the conversation moving.
“I don’t think every team has the guys to talk to like we have with Marcus and Tony and KD,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re so close, that we’re very multicultural here and we have some many backgrounds and guys who are willing to talk.
“I’m sure Marcus and Tony and KD really loved that part of it that other guys would talk and kind of express what they felt. It does get tough at times, but these guys know how to handle it.”
Kemp said he will be joining Semien and other A’s players in donating the salary he would have received from both Thursday and Friday’s games to The Players Alliance, a group of Black current and former Major League players who have made it their mission to make baseball more diverse.
“Once they get the funds tighter, we’re going to figure out communities that we want to target to put the money toward,” Kemp said. “I’m feeling most of it will be donated to Oakland.”
Follow Athletics insider John Hickey on Twitter: @JHickey3
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