Fifty years after his death and 75 years since his pioneering efforts as Major League Baseball’s first African American player—with the Brooklyn Dodgers—Jackie Robinson’s life and legacy continue to have an enduring impact on both the sport and society.
At the corner of Canal and Varick Streets, in Lower Manhattan’s Tribeca, the newly opened Jackie Robinson Museum memorializes the man who broke through MLB’s color line. Starting at first base, on April 15, 1947, Robinson scored the go-ahead run to help the Dodgers defeat the Boston Braves 5-3—and ultimately became one of the sport’s most societally important players.
Della Britton, president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation since 2004, told the Voice in an interview prior to the museum’s public opening, “We want to tell Jackie’s whole story, to provide the breadth of what he did off the field, because so much of his athletic career and what he did on the baseball field has been covered. That’s in there, too, we have a very robust sports forum, but before you walk into the sports forum you walk into the main exhibition, where we talk in-depth not just about his civil rights activism but his involvement in economic empowerment initiatives as well.”
Established in 1973 by Rachel Robinson to perpetuate the memory and legacy of her husband, the foundation annually issues 242 scholarships to minority college students. Rachel Robinson celebrated her 100th birthday on July 19, and was on hand for the new museum’s private ribbon-cutting ceremony, on July 26. Originally conceived in 2008 but plagued by financial delays, the Covid-19 pandemic, and supply chain issues, it took nearly 14 years for the highly anticipated museum to finally open its doors to the public, on Labor Day, September 5.
Speaking from the podium during the private ceremony, Robinson’s 70-year-old son, David, spoke of the collective effort that defined his father’s life’s work: “He used the word ‘we’ regularly when he spoke. In early life, that ‘we’ was a wife, Rachel Robinson, and himself. That ‘we’ grew as it became a team, and the Brooklyn Dodgers went from segregation to internal conflict to finally integration, and finally victory as a baseball team. That ‘we’ grew when Jackie Robinson stepped out on the baseball field. It grew beyond family, it grew beyond race, it grew beyond sport.”
“When Henry [Aaron] was 14 or 15 years old, Jackie made a trip to Mobile, Alabama, and Henry was able to hear him speak. He always had dreams of being a baseball player himself, but Jackie spurred him on.”
That first “we,” Jackie and Rachel Robinson, proved inseparable in life, linked through their shared courage and perseverance while accompanying and supporting each other on their tumultuous journey through baseball’s integration process. Rachel Robinson’s personal legacy also includes a lifetime of educational and philanthropic pursuits. She met Jackie while both were students at UCLA, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, in 1945. The two were married in February 1946, one year prior to Jackie’s big-league debut.
Rachel’s adherence to the couple’s lifelong mission has been an enduring presence in baseball in the decades since Jackie’s passing, in 1972, at age 53. In 2018, she received the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Buck O’Neil Award, presented “to honor an individual whose extraordinary efforts enhanced baseball’s positive impact on society, broadened the game’s appeal, and whose character, integrity, and dignity are comparable to the qualities exhibited by O’Neil.”
Robinson’s collective “we” also included the first wave of Black players to follow in his wake, including former all-time home run king Henry Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s hallowed career home run record, in 1974, and who had been inspired by Robinson to pursue a career in baseball. Aaron died in January 2021, at the age of 86, and most definitely would have attended the museum’s opening ceremony had he lived to see it. His wife, Billye, was on hand, and spoke for both of them. “Henry was a tremendous fan of Jackie as a youngster,” she told the Voice at the event. “When Henry was 14 or 15 years old, Jackie made a trip to Mobile, Alabama, and Henry was able to hear him speak. He always had dreams of being a baseball player himself, but Jackie spurred him on. He knew after he met Jackie that he couldn’t give up on chasing his dream, and that’s what he did, and he used Jackie as a role model.”
As Rachel Robinson had done alongside Jackie, Billye Aaron teamed up with Henry both during and after his baseball career, following Rachel’s lead by taking her husband’s experience and message to a plane extending far beyond the reaches of fair and foul territory. Speaking at the ceremony, Billye Aaron remarked that her husband “made a tremendous contribution to our society as well, and to kids especially. We have a ‘Chasing the Dream’ foundation, and we contribute to a lot of kids going to college, and it was Henry’s idea.… He was just a tremendous human being and I miss him so.… It’s a tremendous loss, certainly a loss beyond words for me and the family, but also to Atlanta, where we were about to embark on a nursing home that needed a lot of help, we made big commitments to it just before he passed. And now I must carry on, and in the role of Rachel Robinson, I will.”
While baseball has taken center stage in the city throughout the summer, with both the Mets and Yankees occupying first place in the season so far, the museum’s ribbon-cutting ceremony also coincided with the teams’ first interleague Subway Series games of the season. A who’s who of New York and national sports celebrities and culture aficionados were in attendance for the ceremony, including Mayor Eric Adams, who delivered opening remarks; Good Morning America anchor and WNBA Hall of Famer Robin Roberts; pioneering tennis star Billie Jean King; film director Spike Lee; former attorney general Eric Holder; and former MLB players CC Sabathia and Willie Randolph.
A visit to the museum by members of the Dodgers just before the Labor Day opening was a good litmus test as to how it would be received by the public. “What I’m most proud of is the depth of the content. It’s there. All of those screens,” said Britton, referring to video screens showing both historic newsreel footage and current commentary, and testimonials that adorn the walls of the 19,380-square-foot museum’s main gallery. “The problem is there is so much that was put on the timeline, it can be a little overwhelming. Once you read all the entries on the timeline, we’re finding that people don’t tend to go into those screens for the deeper dives as often. And today, with the Dodgers here, they had a ball because they scheduled two hours, and so when they looked at the screens they said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that,’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ and that’s what we love to hear people say.”
“We didn’t expect the Dodgers to stay as long as they did, they stayed for two hours and change,” Della Britton told the Voice. “Mookie Betts was here. David Price was here. Of course [manager] David Roberts was here, with his family. We were just very heartened by the interest,” Reported Dave Roberts on MLB.com, “It was great. What’s great is he was a great baseball player [and a] great athlete, but Jackie’s passion was civil rights and equality, more so than baseball. It was more that baseball was just a vehicle for him to use his voice, which is pretty cool to see and actually pretty inspiring.”
The Labor Day opening for the public was preceded by a three-game series between the Mets and Robinson’s original team, the Dodgers—the franchise that left Brooklyn for sunny Los Angeles just two years after his final season, in 1956. Like the Dodgers, Jackie identified with both L.A. and Brooklyn. He was one of the most accomplished college athletes of all time during his days at UCLA, leading the football team in rushing and total yards, in 1940, and winning the NCAA broad jump title in the same year. He qualified to compete in the Olympics in Tokyo (which were canceled by the outbreak of WWII) before embarking on the professional baseball career that would ultimately land him in Brooklyn.
Some highlights of the collection’s more than 4,500 artifacts and 40,000 photographs:
Robinson’s current HOF plaque was modified in 2008 to include information about his pioneering efforts in integrating Major League Baseball and his contributions to society outside the game of baseball. “A lot of people are curious as to why the plaque was changed, and how initially there was no discussion of Jackie’s impact on society, because obviously it was a big deal back then,” Britton explained. “Integrating baseball was integrating society. It was well known by the time he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that he had impacted society in a large way. It was Jackie’s specific request of the Hall that they not include his social impact. He wanted to go in on his baseball statistics like everybody else.”
Other items on display from Robinson’s vital role as a civil rights activist include
the original typed pages of his testimony to the House Unamerican Activities Committee, in 1949. Says Britton, “I think it is very special because he made some very controversial and courageous statements about Americans and the Red Scare and how that intersected with the Black community’s protests around disparate treatment and discrimination. It’s a powerful document, two and a half pages.”
Other honors and ephemera on view:
Jackie Robinson’s “we” also includes us—all of us baseball fans and civil rights supporters whose lives Robinson had an impact on. Most of us learned about baseball’s first Black player when we were in grade school, and could recite his name, as the old saying goes, “quicker than you can say Jack Robinson.” And now there is a JRM Education Center (located on the museum’s second floor), where we can all learn even more.
When she received the Buck O’Neil Award at the Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown in 2008, Rachel Robinson announced the impending Jackie Robinson Museum, not knowing then how long it would take to come to fruition: “Finally, I’m pleased to report to you that we have begun construction of the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York City. I hope to see all of you when it opens in 2019. I don’t know if I’ll be there. I just turned 95. The museum will expand our mission and give us a venue for vibrant dialogue on social issues, and also a destination for innovative educational programming.”
She was only off by a couple of years, but she made it—and so did “we.” ❖
Baltimore-based Charlie Vascellaro is a frequent speaker on the academic baseball conference circuit and the author of a biography of Hall of Fame slugger Hank Aaron. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.
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