Brian VanderBeek

December 5, 2007

What would Jackie do?

We're forever receiving style updates and notices in our newsroom, with topics ranging from the correct spelling of the latest world leader to whether a new hip phrase is a trademark and should be capitalized.

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We're forever receiving style updates and notices in our newsroom, with topics ranging from the correct spelling of the latest world leader to whether a new hip phrase is a trademark and should be capitalized.

A few years back, I remember when the decision came down that we should be using the word "Latino" in cases where we could use the word "Hispanic," which probably came as a surprise to members of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

I bring this up because on Monday I received an e-mail from Nick Stavrianoudakis, the director of external affairs for the Yosemite Community College District. Among the many things he handles is the coordination and publication of event brochures and programs.

As part of the program for the 70th rendition of the Modesto Junior College Basketball Tournament, which opens Thursday, Stavrianoudakis thought it would be nice to include The Bee's write-up of the first championship game, played in 1938, and did the legwork to locate the article.

As an historic document, this game story is priceless. From a purely journalistic standpoint, it shows the archaic writing style and common references of the time. From a social standpoint, it's even more important.

Pasadena City College defeated MJC 42-38 in what was thought to be the first state-wide junior college basketball tournament. The story, written by Karylton Broadwell, and headline proclaims Pasadena the state champion by virtue of its victory.

In the recap of the game story, the author writes how Pasadena surged ahead behind the play of "Jack Robinson, ace Negro forward."

Yes, THAT Jackie Robinson, the man who went on to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball.

Here's where MJC felt compelled to make a decision. In order to reprint the article, the MJC committee believed it necessary to remove the word "Negro." But The Bee doesn't allow stories authorized for reprint to be edited by the new user.

"It didn't detract from the story to take the word out, but The Bee's policy was that we could not remove the word," Stavrianoudakis said.

So the decision was MJC's to either run the story with the word "Negro" or seek another story or method to document the 1938 event.

What would Jackie do?

"Finding the archive article was really neat and was a good read," Stavrianoudakis said. "I wanted to show the historical importance of this tournament, and any time Jackie Robinson is mentioned in conjunction with our tournament, it's a big thing.

"But we decided that we could run the risk of having our intent in running the article overshadowed by the use of the word."

So when you pick up the game program at the MJC gym in the next few days, you won't see the article in question. That was the decision.

It's MJC's program. The college retains the right to print anything it wants, and it's not my intent to be critical or show disrespect for this particular choice. I'm more upset about this year's tournament being reduced to eight teams -- all from Northern California -- but that's a different matter.

However, leaving the article out of the program denies readers the chance to see Jackie Robinson in the perspective of his era, in his only Modesto appearance as an athlete. Having a black player in the tournament was rare, and having a player of Robinson's ability made him unique, regardless of race.

It was common for newspapers of the time to refer to athletes by their ethnicity or national origin. We still do in select cases, whether it be a reference to a Samoan playing high school football in Stockton or a reference to the next hard-throwing Dominican right-hander pitching for the Modesto Nuts.

In 1938 and for decades following, the term "Negro" was an accepted way to refer to someone of African-American heritage. To see Robinson's name tied to that now-taboo term in print serves to further underscore the historical significance of his emergence with the Brooklyn Dodgers nine years later.

Remember, this was only two years after Jessie Owens won four gold medals in Berlin in front of a disapproving Adolf Hitler, and six years before the establishment of the United Negro College Fund -- still a strong and vital organization.

Had Robinson not gone on to play for the Dodgers, we wouldn't care now that he was a star player for the Pasadena City College basketball team in 1938.

But to Bee staff writer Karylton Broadwell, the fact that Jackie Robinson, Pasadena's star player, was "Negro" was significant, as I'm sure it was to the readers of The Modesto Bee 69 years ago.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at or 578-2300.

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