FIVE YEARS AGO, during one of my oldest daughter’s first Little League games of the season, I noticed she was jumping around at first base on every court. It was obvious she was imitating someone, and considering the only game she had seen me play in at the time was the Hall of Fame game when she was 3, she certainly did not copy me.
She went on to steal a base every chance she could.
When she was pressured to explain her sudden love affair by stealing bases and aggressively advancing on every lane, she dropped one name:
Before that baseball season, my daughter, who turns 13 this summer, had seen the movie “42” at home, with parental protection in full readiness. We wondered if it was appropriate at her age, but we also knew that Robinson’s story was too important to miss an opportunity to share through a medium that speaks so well to this generation of fans: movie entertainment.
By this time, our four children – a son and three daughters – already had a preliminary and personal understanding of some of the dynamics of the breed in America: that sometimes the weight and power of the breed knocks you off your feet, no matter how prepared, you think, You can be. But we were still preparing them for the portrayal of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman’s horror, as well as how Florida’s spring training would catch Robinson and his family under constant threat.
The film resonated, as demonstrated by my daughter’s mimicry on the diamond. All my kids would become fans of baseball player Jackie Robinson right away, but it was just as important for my wife and me to tell them the story of the complete Jackie Robinson. The figure who testified in court marched in the street, opening a bank. Jackie Robinson wanted equality to mean an open door for anyone to play baseball – or to do something else.
Robinson spent his later life weaving his influence into other areas of American life. He had no intentions of stopping progress at first base, and his efforts after baseball became an extension of his Hall of Fame career, hitting the conscience of the boardroom, the political elite, and institutions of power, including the MLB. When he withdrew, the line he crossed was not a finish line, but a starting line. His integration of baseball was an early domino in the civil rights gains that would come later, and even without a bat in hand, he was also a part of them. This fuller picture of Robinson helps to frame how he remains significant 75 years after he broke into Major League Baseball: It was the kind of change that resonates and lasts.
LIKE MY CHILDREN, I was introduced to Jackie Robinson’s story when I was growing up in New Jersey. His story had always been bigger than life for me, as it was for so many kids, young baseball players and for Black America. Jackie and his family are royalty to us, and yet they still feel close in some way. But I was lucky to get even closer through the opportunity Jackie helped give me – a chance to play baseball in the major league.
I met his widow, Rachel, for the first time just before the 1991 MLB draft. As a 20-year-old, it took my breath away to see her.
When I played for the Phillies in 1998, Jackie’s daughter, Sharon Robinson, went on a tour inspired by the principles of their family. It was called “Breaking Barriers”, and one of the principles was education, so big leagues would join Sharon in the classrooms to talk about Jackie’s story (the program still exists today). I was selected to meet her in Philadelphia, the city where I went to college and where I played, to meet with students. The possibility was surreal – it took me a while to absorb what it meant to be a representative of Jackie Robinson, to know that his daughter would share my story with the next generation … to know that I had become a part of their history.
I’ve done extensive media work sharing Robinson’s story over the last two decades, including an interview with Rachel in Cuba in 2016, and within that I’ve always been a little bit desperate because I care about how Jackie Robinson’s inheritance will persist. It’s one of the greatest American stories ever, but like any story, it can fade over time. A big step in maintaining it is to share it with children who are young enough to be his great-great-grandchildren.
I’ve seen the effect this has on its own, after talking to players on the UCLA baseball team, a team Jackie once played in his college days as a four-sports athlete. In preparation for calling the match between Stanford and UCLA on Jackie Robinson’s day today, I interviewed two sons of my former teammate, Eric Karros. I learned how much they knew about Jackie and how much their coach, John Savage, had committed to telling his story.
Then there was the day my personal connection to Robinsons extended to my own family. After meeting Sharon on that tour two decades ago, it has become a more grounded friendship. A few years ago, we two had been playing phone tag, and she happened to be calling back when my oldest daughter was sitting in the car. So they had a conversation. For me, it was an amazing experience – listening to them tell about gymnastics and their childhood, two daughters of major leagues sharing notes. I just got out of the way.
At that moment, for my daughter, Jackie Robinson went from history to family.
Rev. Jesse Jackson explains how Jackie Robinson inspired him by challenging barriers in baseball and beyond.
THE PARTS OF Robinson’s story that lasts is universal examples of what we all seek from the world: relevance, respect, inclusion, justice. Robinson did it with grace, fire, exceptional talent and a message that sought equality for all.
It helps that he could do this through sports – as Kyle Karros said during my interview from dugout at UCLA. “It’s not like he’s just a great athlete, which he was,” Karros told me, “it’s that he stood for so much more than just baseball … he used baseball as a tool to influence so many people, and that is ultimately what we should strive to do, leaving a positive lasting impact on the world we entered. “
Baseball gave Robinson a microphone, and he used it to confront and change the world, not just to amplify his personal success on the court.
This is a wonderful lesson for any generation.
Sharon has written a few books about her family and her father’s legacy, one of them a memoir about the year she turned 13 (“Child of the Dream: A Memoir of 1963”) and another (“Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait of Jackie Robinson’s Daughter “) about their home life during her father’s” retirement “- which was really anything but. (As Jackie would write in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower: “I’ve become more aggressive since I stopped playing.”) They faced the same challenges that any family would with a father who was on the go all the time. , and was drawn in so many directions.
An entire nation – including Martin Luther King Jr. and a large number of American presidents – so to her father. But he wanted to create father-daughter days in New York. And he would have time to check the ice on their lake to see if it was frozen enough for her to skate on. About this, 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 ice skating. We kids lined up along the shoreline, shouting encouraging words as Dad continued out onto the snow-covered ice. Before placing one large foot in front of the other, he knocked on the ice with his broomstick. After what seemed like an eternity, Dad reached the deepest part of the lake, gave one last push with his stick, then turned to us and shouted, “Go and get your skates!” I thought Dad was very brave.
Now I think even more. He was just as brave then as when he started baseball, a feat that took me years to appreciate. It only gradually dawned on me what it had meant for him to break the baseball color line, the courage it took for him to get into unknown and dangerous waters. He had to feel his way along an unpaved path like a blind man tapping for clues. It was Jackie Robinson. And it was my father – big, heavy, out there alone on the lake, pointing his way so the ice would be safe for us.
And he could not swim.
That was 75 years ago when Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking a color barrier for the first time in a major professional sport. It was also a world event that helped set in motion what would be the integration of a nation and inspired anyone who understands the pain of trying to cross a color line. That line was more like a wall, covered with barbed wire, but Robinson still climbed it.
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 this not only for his children but for his dream children. He also left messengers and parents, mentors and coaches, who know that with all his accomplishments, he always tried at his core to be a better father because that love always endures.
My daughter would continue to steal more than 30 bases that Little League season – according to my calculations as a admittedly biased coach from third base. She jumped from base to base and often took another on a passing ball or a wild course. 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 on base and show what she could. She finished the season as a girl with two results: go or knock out and look.
I told her that her strategy was sound, but that she would not be able to keep it up much longer – in the coming seasons, opposing pitchers would get better. However, it did not mean anything to her. When you first feel like Jackie Robinson, you will always be Jackie Robinson.