"I am a Yankee."
That was the declaration Nelson Mandela made in New York in June 1990, just months after he was freed from prison. It was a testament to how great his reach was: In his first visit to the U.S., Mandela spoke to world leaders at the United Nations, attended a rally in the streets of Harlem, and addressed the crowd at Yankee Stadium. He even got a ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes.
Mandela's contributions to the world, and humanity at large, cannot be overstated, and I'll leave it to historians and civil-rights experts to put them in perspective after his death yesterday at age 95. That U.S. visit, however, demonstrates just how influential he was, with his reach extending past racial, cultural and political barriers all the way to the sports world.
In the New York Daily News, former Mayor David Dinkins writes about Mandela's visit, an understandably emotional recollection for the first and only black mayor of that great city. There was Mandela, a great uniter, in the home of the always-polarizing Yankees. Sports have often been used as a tool for social change, especially in civil rights, and this was no exception. Mandela demonstrated that, against all odds, a mutual love for the game could be used to heal the wounds of the past.
Mandela appeared in front of a throng of fans, and the mayor draped his shoulders with a Yankees jacket and placed a cap on his head. "You now know who I am," Mandela said. "I am a Yankee." It must have been a cathartic moment for a diverse city that had endured decades of violent, racial tension.
In 1995, Mandela made waves with another wardrobe choice, when he donned the jersey of the captain of the Springboks, the national South African rugby team that was the very symbol of white privilege. As he had done for the majority of his life, Mandela defied expectations and reasonable assumptions of man, and managed to both anger and engender unity between white and black South Africans alike.
He was one Yankee the entire world could root for.