Why Jackie Robinson’s story still resonates 75 years after his MLB debut

FIVE YEARS AGO, in one of my oldest daughter’s first little league games of the season, I noticed her rebound at first base on every pitch. It was clear she was impersonating someone, and given that the only game she had seen me play at the time was the Hall of Fame game when she was 3, she was definitely not copying me.

She proceeded to steal a base whenever she could.

When pressed to explain her sudden love affair with stealing bases and aggressively advancing through every terrain, she dropped a name:

Jackie Robinson

Before this baseball season, my daughter, who will be 13 this summer, had seen the movie “42” at home, with parental protection on high alert. We wondered if it was appropriate for his age, but we also knew that Robinson’s story was too important to miss an opportunity to share it through a medium that speaks so well to this generation of fans: cinematic entertainment. .

By this point, our four children – a son and three daughters – already had a preliminary and personal understanding of some of the dynamics of race in America: that sometimes the weight and power of race knocks you down, no matter how prepared you think you could be. But we still prepared them for Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman’s horror portrayal, as well as how spring training in Florida would capture Robinson and his family under constant threat.

The film resonated, as evidenced by my daughter’s mimicry on the diamond. All of my children would immediately become fans of Jackie Robinson, the baseball player, but it was equally important for my wife and me to tell them the story of the complete Jackie Robinson. The character who testified in court, marched through the streets, opened a bank. Jackie Robinson wanted equality to mean an open door for anyone to play baseball – or do anything else.

Robinson spent his later life weaving his impact into other areas of American life. He had no intention of stopping progress at first base, and his post-baseball efforts became an extension of his Hall of Fame career, striking the conscience of the boardroom, the political elite, and the public. institutions of power, including MLB. When he retired, the line he crossed was not a finish line, but a starting line. His mainstreaming of baseball was an early domino in the civil rights gains that would come later, and even without a bat in hand, he was part of it, too. This fuller picture of Robinson helps define how important he remains 75 years after entering Major League Baseball: it’s the kind of change that reverberates and endures.


LIKE MY CHILDREN, I discovered the story of Jackie Robinson when I was growing up in New Jersey. His story has always been larger than life for me, as it has been for so many children, young baseball players, and for black America. Jackie and her family are royalty to us and yet they always feel close at all times. But I was blessed to grow even closer because of the opportunity Jackie gave me – a chance to play major league baseball.

I first met his widow, Rachel, just before the 1991 MLB Draft. At 20, seeing her took my breath away.

When I was playing for the Phillies in 1998, Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, embarked on a tour inspired by their family’s principles. It was called “Breaking Barriers” and one of the tenets was education, so big leaguers would join Sharon in the classrooms to talk about Jackie’s story (the program still exists today). I was chosen to meet her in Philadelphia, the city where I went to college and where I played, to meet students. The opportunity was surreal – it took me a while to process what it meant to be a representative of Jackie Robinson, to know that her daughter would share my story with the next generation…to know that I had become a part of their narrative.

I’ve done extensive media work to share the Robinson story over the past two decades, including an interview with Rachel in Cuba in 2016, and it’s always been a bit of desperation, because I worry about how Jackie Robinson’s legacy will last. . It’s one of the greatest American stories of all time, but like any story, over time it can fade. A big step in its longevity is to share it with children young enough to be its great-great-grandchildren.

I’ve seen the effect this has first hand, having spoken with players from the UCLA baseball team, a team Jackie once played in college days as a four-year-old athlete. sports. For my preparation to call the game between Stanford and UCLA on Jackie Robinson Day today, I interviewed two sons of my former teammate, Eric Karros. I learned everything they knew about Jackie and how committed their trainer, John Savage, was to telling his story.

Then there was the day my personal connection with the Robinsons extended to my own family. After meeting Sharon on this tour two decades ago, it grew into a stronger friendship. A few years ago, we had both played on the phone, and she recalled when my oldest daughter was in the car. So they had a conversation. For me, it was a mind-blowing experience – listening to them talk about gymnastics and their childhood, two big league girls sharing notes. I just got out of the way.

At that point, for my daughter, Jackie Robinson went from history to family.


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Reverend Jesse Jackson explains how Jackie Robinson inspired him to challenge barriers in baseball and beyond.

PARTS OF Robinson’s stories that endure are universal examples of what we all seek in the world: relevance, respect, inclusion, equity. Robinson did it with grace, fire, exceptional talent and a message that sought equality for all.

It helps that he can do that through sports — as Kyle Karros said during my interview from the dugout at UCLA. “It’s not like he was just a great athlete, what he was,” Karros told me, “is that he represented so much more than baseball…he used baseball as a vehicle to touch so many people, and that’s ultimately what we should be striving to do, to leave a positive and lasting impact on the world we’ve entered.”

Baseball gave Robinson a microphone, and he used it to take on and change the world, not just to amplify his personal success on the field.

This is a wonderful lesson for any generation.

Sharon has written a few books about her family and her father’s legacy, including a memoir about the year she turned 13 (“Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963”) and another (“Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait by Jackie Robinson’s Daughter”) about their home life during her father’s “retirement” – which really wasn’t. (As Jackie would write in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower: “I’ve become more aggressive since I stopped playing.”) They faced the same challenges as any family with a dad who was on the go. all the time, being drawn in so many directions.

An entire nation – including Martin Luther King Jr. and a long list of American presidents – looked to his father. But he would carve out father-daughter days in New York. And he would take the time to check the ice on their lake to see if it was frozen enough for her to skate on. On this subject, Sharon would write one of the most beautiful passages I have ever read, in “Stealing Home”:

It was Dad’s official job to test the ice on the lake to determine its safety for skating. We kids lined up along the shore and shouted words of encouragement as Dad walked out onto the snow-covered ice. Before placing one big foot in front of the other, he tapped the ice with his broomstick. After what seemed like an eternity, Dad would come to the bottom of the lake, give one last swipe with his stick, then turn to us and yell, “Get your skates!” I thought dad was very brave.

Now I think so even more. He was as brave then as he was when he entered baseball, a feat that took me years to appreciate. Only gradually did I realize what it had meant to him to break baseball’s color line, the courage it had taken for him to step into uncharted and dangerous waters. He had to grope on an unclear path like a blind man, tapping for clues. It was Jackie Robinson. And that was my dad — big, heavy, alone out there on the lake, tapping to keep the ice safe for us.

And he couldn’t swim.

75 years ago, Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier for the first time in major professional sport. It was also a global event, helping to spark what it would be like to integrate a nation and inspiring all who understand the pain of trying to cross a color line. This line looked more like a wall, covered in barbed wire, but Robinson climbed it anyway.

He tested the ice for all of us, through his fearlessness, through moments of doubt, love, frustration – the path to social change is never linear. He did all of this not just for his children, but for the children of his dreams. He also left behind messengers and parents, mentors and coaches, who know that with all his accomplishments, he always tried to be a better father, because that love endures forever.

My daughter would go on to steal more than 30 bases this Little League season — by my calculations as an admittedly biased third base coach. She jumped from base to base, often taking another on a passed ball or a wild pitch. After realizing that only a few kids could throw strikes consistently, she stopped swinging the bat at all, deciding it was her best chance to get to the base and show what she could do. She finished the season as a two-result girl: walking or hitting looking.

I told her her strategy was sound, but she couldn’t sustain it any longer – in future seasons, opposing pitchers would improve. It didn’t matter to her, though. Once you feel like Jackie Robinson, you will always be Jackie Robinson.

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