By Liz Dwyer for Word in Black
On April 15, more than 50,000 fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers packed to the famed stadium in Chavez Ravine to watch the Dodgers take on the Cincinnati Reds. The day was about much more than just eating peanuts and popcorn and celebrating their love of America’s National Pastime. Both fans and players wore jerseys emblazoned with the number 42 on them in tribute to the one and only Jackie Robinson.
Indeed, the date marked the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball on April 15, 1947.
His widow, 99-year-old Rachel Robinson — she turns 100 on July 19 — was driven onto the Dodger Stadium field shortly before the first pitch to commemorate the moment.
“She has been dogged about keeping the legacy alive,” says Della Britton the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Rachel Robinson founded the nonprofit organization in 1973, one year after Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972. The foundation’s goal is “to promote higher education and the values embodied in the life and legacy of sports and civil rights icon Jackie Robinson.”
Rachel Robinson is also about to see a longtime dream come to life: the July 26 opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City.
“I’m very, very focused on when you walk into that museum, you will instantly know that this was a man who did a lot more than play baseball,” Britton says.
“When I had my private conversation with her,” recalls Britton of talking to Rachel Robinson, “she said, ‘You know, I’ve always wanted a fixed tribute to Jack.’ You know, her beloved Jack — and she’s the only one that calls him Jack. No one else.”
Rachel Robinson didn’t want a shrine to her husband, though. Instead, she wanted a place where people in the community could come discover what Jackie Robinson stood for and learn his full legacy.
To that end, the museum will feature fun, engaging content about baseball, and thanks to an anonymous million dollar grant, there will be a character education program called “Be 42”. And, of course, the museum will take a deep dive into Robinson’s civil rights activism, including his relationship with the Black press.
When Robinson made his major league debut on April 15, 1947, the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and baseball was still a racially segregated sport.
Sportswriters at Black newspapers- like Sam Lacy at the AFRO- as well as Black politicians had long called for the integration of baseball, but until Robinson signed with the Dodgers, Black players had been restricted to the Negro leagues.
It’s been well documented in media — including in the late Chadwick Boseman’s star turn as Robinson in the film “42” that Jackie Robinson had more courage and fortitude than most in order to endure the threats and racial slurs hurled at him by white players and fans.
In 1947, the Baltimore Afro-American ran an interview with Robinson where he acknowledged the pressure he felt about being the first Black MLB player and having to publicly endure racism.
“I don’t guess anybody really understands exactly how I feel about being signed up,” Robinson told reporter Michael Carter. “I feel sort of as if everyone was looking at me. I feel that if I ﬂop, or conduct myself badly — on or off the ﬁeld — that I’ll set the advancement back a hundred years. Why, I feel that all the little colored kids playing sandlot baseball have their professional futures wrapped up somehow in me.”
Carl Erskine, 95, one of the only living Major League Baseball players to play with Robinson on the Dodgers saw the racist treatment firsthand.
“Our nation was truly Black and white,” Erskine, who is white, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s the way it was. It was a very distinct cultural divide. So with what Jackie did, people saw what a gentleman he was, and how intelligent he was, and how exciting he was as a player. He broke down lots of social barriers that were ingrained in our society for a couple of centuries.”
Britton wants to keep that barrier-breaking going at the upcoming museum.
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