Rachel proud of Foundation's progress
Jackie's message, legacy still resonate in MLB today
NEW YORK -- Rachael Robinson, the unofficial matriarch of Major League Baseball, founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation -- an organization that funds scholarships for minority students. The institution began in 1973, a year after her husband died. A career nurse, Robinson earned her master's degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University during the 1950s.
Nearing 88 years old, Rachel Robinson is a window into an era when Jackie shattered baseball's color barrier and a door into the future of human relations and equal opportunity. On the eve of MLB celebrating the 63rd anniversary of Jackie's first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field, Rachel sat down to talk with MLB.com on Wednesday at the Foundation's lower Manhattan offices.She will be in attendance on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium, for the main festivities to honor her late husband. MLB.com: After all these years, what does honoring Jackie mean to you? Robinson: The annual ceremonies that are conducted now are not only in stadiums, but are in schools and museums. What it means to me is that there's youthfulness to the spreading of Jackie's legacy. I went to Harriet Tubman Elementary School yesterday. There was a ceremony that included little children. They knew the history. They were telling me about Jackie. That means that over the years, we've been able to institutionalize his values with the younger generation. It has become more of a national celebration than just a baseball celebration.
MLB.com: How important was it for Major League Baseball to retire Jackie's No. 42 throughout the game?Robinson: I think it was a significant honor and move on the part of MLB. That number now has been recognized in a lot of different ways and places. It's a symbol. I see people in the stands wearing shirts with it on their back. It's a shortcut way of saying, "I'm interested in progress." When you see that number, you just think of Jackie. Anywhere I see it I say, "That's Jack!" It's an educational tool, a real influence. MLB.com: How do you remember Jackie as a player? Robinson: What I enjoyed the most about him as a player was how intelligent he was on those basepaths, how he studied the game and everybody's positions. He processed that information when he stole bases. All of those things were part of his perceptions about what was going on in the game. It was so much fun to watch. His pigeon toes always attracted me. I thought he ran faster because he was pigeon-toed. It was the running game and the sense he had of what was happening on the field that intrigued me most. MLB.com: During his 10-year career, from 1947 to 1956, how many games did you see him play? Robinson: I went to every home game in Ebbets Field. I never missed one. I went on a few road trips, but in those days the Dodgers didn't encourage wives to go on them and didn't make any preparations for us. They gave us a treat maybe once or twice a year. Of course, when they played the Giants at the Polo Grounds, I went there, too. And all those World Series games at the old Yankee Stadium. Those were very painful games, until the Dodgers finally won the World Series in 1955. MLB.com: How do you remember him as a person? Robinson: Well, you see, I met him as a young person when we lived in Pasadena, Calif. I was 17 years old. We literally grew together. I loved him passionately. I adored him and felt adored by him, so it's hard for me to segment any one thing about him that I particularly liked because he was at the center, at the core of my life. I loved the man he became. I loved his determination to fight back, his determination to succeed and pass on things to the next generation. Those things were all important to me. The other quality he had, and I loved from the first time I met him, was his humility. He was the big man on campus when I met him, but there was no sense of that when he came to meet me. He was a soft-spoken, kindly, smiling person. One of the strengths he had was his humility. He never thought he could get away with anything or tried to get away from anything. I admired that greatly about him. MLB.com: At the same time, you grew as your own person. How did that evolve? Robinson: When we got married, Jack made it very clear to me that he didn't want me to work, and I agreed with that. But I always reserved my own plans. I knew that the day would eventually come when I was going to get out of that house and do more. But I wanted to concentrate on his career and that lasted 10 years. Near the end of his career, I started making inquiries to universities and how to gain entrance. I trusted him enough that when it came time for me to leave, he would support me in the same way I supported him. The other thing I didn't want to do was go to work when our three children were very small. I had planned to go to work when my youngest child was in first grade. Until then, I was able to concentrate on the family and not deal with the outside world. MLB.com: Of course, you had no way of knowing that Jack would die so young, at 53 years old in 1972. Robinson: No, I didn't know that, but I had seen that happen in my mother's life. I always admired her for being prepared for what was going to come at her. My father died when he was 53, the same age as Jack. I saw her get prepared for that. She became a caterer and was able to be more independent. She was my model for that. MLB.com: Not only have you maintained and grown Jackie's legacy, but you have done so by developing as a very strong woman in your own right. Robinson: I'm the kind of individual who started my five-year plan when I was 10 years old. I knew even back then that I didn't want to get stuck my entire life in California. My family had been there for two generations. I've always thought ahead about what I want to accomplish. MLB.com: Do you still do your five-year plans? Robinson: Oh, of course. Let see, I'm going to be 88, so my periods of time for planning have shortened, you see. By the time I'm 90, I know what I want to do. I have some good plans for myself. I have some projects I want to finish. I have a documentary I want to get done. I want to do an estate plan, so my children are not left out in left field and not knowing what to do. There are things like that I give priority to. MLB.com: It's hard to believe that it has been 63 years since Jackie broke the color barrier. How do you think baseball has progressed since then? Robinson: Slowly. Major League Baseball has progressed slowly, but it is progressing. The RBI program has been important. The Breaking Barriers program that my daughter, Sharon, has been a part of is important. The hiring of managers and general managers are all critically important. But, just like society as a whole, that's all happening very slowly, and there's still a lot of work to be done. MLB.com: What do you, personally, want to see happen? Robinson: Well, just like in society, the goal is equal opportunity, but we're not there yet. There are people who are discriminated against and don't get a chance to move forward in terms of their talent. I want this to be an open society in which everybody has a chance to progress. In baseball, I think that's happening, but I think it's just going very slowly. MLB.com: You founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation in Jackie's name. What was the inspiration behind the Foundation? Robinson: Jack passed in '72 and died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a devastating period for me because my son, Jackie Jr., had died in a car accident the year before, and my mother died in '73. I was at the bottom of a very deep hole, and I was trying to think of ways to pull myself back up. I certainly didn't want to let go of Jack. We were thinking of ways to preserve his memory. So, we decided we wanted to focus on education. We wanted to focus on minority youngsters who didn't have the kind of opportunities that others had. That was exciting because we had an impact on lives. We were helping kids grow into leadership positions. MLB.com: At this point, you're trying to fund a Jackie Robinson Museum as an adjunct to the Foundation. What role is that going to play? Robinson: It will preserve the history and teach the history. It will cover the events that took place during Jackie's life -- from 1919-72 -- and thereafter. Not only what happened in Jackie's life, but social progress in America. All through those years were going to accentuate the heroes and heroines of the Civil Rights movement, and all the other movements that have brought us to this stage. We'll have interactive games and bring children in, giving them the opportunity to put into perspective the event in their lives with the events in the United States. MLB.com: How proud are you are of the fact that through the Foundation, $18 million in scholarships have been awarded to over 1,300 students? Robinson: We're very proud of that. We call them our kids, but they're really young adults. We're so proud of their poise, their intelligence, their charm. They're educated and have a chance to go someplace. We have alums that are well-placed in the community and are active. It's so inspiring. It's so hard to tell you how much it gives me hope for the future and strengthens our resolve to do more.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.