Solving the Jackie Robinson Diabetes Mystery

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Despite attacks of snarling bigotry both on and off the baseball field, Jackie Robinson, the first African American player in the major leagues, kept his cool and his dignity, saying he didn’t care whether anyone liked or disliked him as long as they respected him as a human being. He’s an enduring baseball and a civil rights icon, as well as a stirring symbol for how times have changed for people with diabetes.

Today, exactly two years before the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s birth, it’s not common knowledge that he lived with diabetes.  In fact, his diabetes remains so shrouded in mystery that there isn’t even a clear consensus about which type he had.

In his autobiography I Never Had it Made, Robinson doesn’t mention his diabetes. This was despite being almost blinded by diabetes at the time of writing the book and suffering from other diabetes-related complications.

The lack of acknowledgement regarding Robinson’s diabetes extends beyond Robinson himself, and beyond his death from a heart attack in 1972 at age 53. Ken Burns’s 2016 documentary on Robinson, called simply, Jackie Robinson, devotes a scant 40 seconds of its four hours to Robinson’s diabetes.

“Jack suddenly lost a lot of weight and he began to have pain in his legs,” says Robinson’s widow, Rachel, at the 24:37 mark in part two of the film.

“In 1952, at age 33, Jackie Robinson was diagnosed with diabetes,” the narrator, Keith David, says.

“The doctor also found that his heart was deteriorating,” Rachel Robinson continues. “It was a big shock to both of us because it meant our lives were going to change forever after that. And they did. He didn’t want to discuss it with anyone, and never talked about what changes he had to make in order to keep playing.”

Rachel Robinson, a registered nurse, did not respond to a request for an interview.

Some people with diabetes have been critical and outspoken about Robinson’s silence on the subject of his disease, saying the great civil rights leader missed an opportunity to help people with diabetes fight for better care and against discrimination in their own lives.

“While Robinson is one of many public and famous figures to keep their diabetes diagnosis hidden, many see this as a lost opportunity at a time when type 2 diabetes is plundering the African American community,” says a page on dlife.com. “Some argue that Robinson could have used his influence to advocate for the disease, raise awareness of diabetes, and urge improvements in care.”

In another article, this one on the website diaTribe, James S. Hirsch goes much further, to the point of castigating Robinson for his silence.

“Why does it matter that Jackie Robinson had diabetes?” Hirsch says, “Because perceptions matter, and Robinson could have blunted some of the misperceptions that existed during his life and to some extent still remain: that the disease only affects people who are old or overweight, or that the discovery of insulin has either cured it or at least made it not that serious.”

Hirsch, and other critics, treat Robinson as though he were a traitor to a cause. The problem with that kind of thinking is that at the time Robinson had diabetes, there was no cause.

People in the 1950s and 60s and 70s as a rule did not en masse or individually publically speak out or protest about health matters, whether in demand for better treatment options or for greater empathy and understanding.

Protests, activism, and public discourse about healthcare only came about after years of protests and movements for individual and collective rights in other areas, most notably for gay rights after Stonewall, for women’s rights to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and after, of course, the civil rights movement for African Americans. The first grassroots, public protest movement in relation to a health issue concern was ACT UP’s protests in the face of the AIDS crisis and that started in the 1980s.

Some postulate that perhaps Robinson kept his diabetes quiet because he didn’t want people feeling sorry for him . “He may also have felt shame or embarrassment,” Hirsch says. “He wouldn’t be the first, nor last, to feel that way. And how much more could we expect from Jackie Robinson? A hero only has so much heroism to give. But we can expect more from others.”

Thinking that Robinson kept his diabetes a secret so people didn’t pity him is reductive, and probably inaccurate. When you consider who Robinson was, and the times in which he lived, it’s more likely that Robinson did not disclose his diabetes because others would have used it against him.

Before he was a civil rights icon, before he was the first black man to play major league baseball, before he was the first black man to become a vice president of a major U.S. corporation, Jackie Robin was an athlete. He was the first ever four-letter athlete, in track, baseball, football and basketball, at UCLA. When he wasn’t dominating those events, he found time to win trophies in swimming and tennis. The mindset of a fine athlete is attuned first to advantages in competition.

Robinson was already at a perceived competitive disadvantage because he was African American, and blacks were looked upon as lesser people by whites. For a man judged under a microscope for his lifestyle, temperament, physique, and more, to have revealed he had diabetes, at a time when diabetes was seen as a sign of not just physical weakness but outright sickliness, would have not only given his competitors another perceived advantage over him on the diamond, it would have tarnished the cause for which he was fighting.

He may have also thought having diabetes would tarnish his reputation as an American businessman when he was attempting to promote black-owned businesses in the U.S., as well as his stature as an American icon. That’s because, once again, having diabetes was generally viewed as a physical, and by some, even a moral, weakness.

“Back then, nobody really knew what diabetes was,” Mary Tyler Moore said about her diagnosis in 1969, much later than Robinson’s diagnosis. In another interview Moore said she was ambivalent about working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation to promote diabetes in 1984. “At the time, I hadn’t taken ownership of my diabetes,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted the world to know that behind the smile that could turn it on was an independent woman who was dependent on multiple shots of insulin a day, just to stay alive.”

For a man like Robinson, who was carrying the weight of properly representing an entire race of people in an era much earlier than Moore’s, the choice to not become an ambassador for diabetes seems like an easy one to make.

Today athletes and celebrities reveal their diabetes and even celebrate it, as Moore famously did, and it’s not big news. To that end, Robinson is as emblematic of the positive change in our culture regarding race as he is regarding diabetes. Because, while there is much work to be done to improve perceptions and the tendency toward irrational discrimination, today diabetes is simply a more accepted, and less judged, part of life.

That’s because Robinson is an icon not only for helping dismantle barriers, but for representing how much better the world is once those barriers are down.

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Jeff N.
Thanks for the great article. I especially appreciated the Mary Tyler Moore quotes concerning our reluctance to publicly discuss diabetes in the 50s, 60s, and early 70s. I was diagnosed just after Robinson passed away, and was a baseball fan who knew he had diabetes and lost his vision because of it. I was barely 15 at diagnosis and his experience with complications troubled me. (After more than 43 years, I’m mostly free of those troubles.) It was much harder to take care of diabetes when he was diagnosed; there was no technology for bG testing and insulin was more… Read more »
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