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TSN Archives: An appreciation for Jackie Robinson (April 14, 1997, issue)

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Editor’s note: This appreciation, by Leonard Coleman, who was president of the National League at the time and, at Rachel Robinson's request, chair of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, first appeared in The Sporting News dated April 14, 1997, that marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking baseball's color barrier. Since 1973, the Jackie Robinson Foundation has provided educational opportunities to talented college students who go on to become leaders in the workplace and in their communities – advancing the realization of first-class citizenship for all. Learn more about the JRF Scholarship Program and JRF IMPACT.

By LEONARD COLEMAN

I grew up in a two-family house. On the first floor, my father was a Giants fan, and my mother was a Dodgers fan; on the second floor, my uncle was a Yankees fan. The wars we had in the household over baseball were seemingly endless. And generally those wars were carried on over dinner. The unifying force at 39 Central Ave. in Montclair, N.J., was Jackie Robinson. There was one thing we could all agree upon: We all rooted for Jackie. He provided tranquillity and unification at my dinner table.

Jackie was my hero. He was my champion. He carried my every hope, my every aspiration, on his broad shoulders. I guess that wasn't uncommon for Jackie because he was used to carrying people. For example, at UCLA Jack was a tremendous football player. He carried would-be tacklers up and down the field. Jack's football exploits, however, were merely a prelude to the greater weight he would carry later in life.

Before breaking the color barrier in baseball, Jackie attacked another segregationist institution. He tackled the military. Jackie fought battles against bigotry and a racist system, and he did it at great personal sacrifice. This part of Jack's life deserves more attention.

Yes, we know about Jackie's breaking baseball's color line in 1947 and the profound effect that had not only on baseball, but also American society. I think it's useful as we think back 50 years ago to 1947, to put into context what America was like at that time. President Truman had not yet desegregated the armed forces. It was seven years before Brown vs. the Board of Education, eight years before the Montgomery bus boycott, and 17 years before the Johnson Administration passed the Civil Rights Act.

Jackie's breakthrough foreshadowed the greatest civil rights movement in this country this century. He not only foreshadowed it, he was a leader in it his entire life, particularly in civil rights. More should be mentioned about Jackie's post-baseball career, because Jackie may have retired from baseball, but he did not retire from speaking out and providing leadership in the civil rights area. He was a confidant of, and marched with, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He held leadership positions in the NAACP.

Jackie was a great ballplayer. Lifetime batting average .311. Rookie of the year. MVP. Spiritual leader of the Dodgers. Jackie was a true Hall of Famer. There's no question about that. But off the field, he was a Hall of Fame barrier-breaker because he knocked down hurdles and created opportunities for people in all walks of life.

As a kid you often remember images, not sequence. I remember Jackie dancing off first base, and the pitchers so rattled. I looked at that image and I said to myself, ”Boy, he's really changing this ballgame. Just by dancing off first base. Now that I am older, I realize Jackie not only was shaking up the pitcher, he was daring America to have a higher standard. The Robinson challenge was compelling. Jackie's message was and is bigger than baseball.

Fiercely independent, Jack possessed a restless soul. He was restless for justice. He was restless for equality and opportunity. Many of us like the song "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" I particularly like the Natalie Cole version. But perhaps that song would have been more appropriately named “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit Jim Crow?” because he hit him in the military, he hit him on the baseball diamond and he hit him in our society

In my opinion, Jackie Robinson provided the soul of the modern game of baseball. The Robinson ideal — leadership, competitiveness, passion, energy, a quest for justice and Jackie's challenge to a stained system — should be the foundation upon which the modern game of baseball should be played. Fifty years later we're not just celebrating a life. Jackie's spirit continues to drive us. Jackie once said, “A life isn't important unless it impacts another life.”

I think one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me was when Rachel Robinson came to me a little more than a year ago and asked me if I could chair the Jackie Robinson Foundation. It's not often that people in life are able — are asked — to make a contribution to a foundation that bears your childhood hero's name. So I felt very privileged that Rachel would ask me.

Our foundation's motto is, “A life is only important if it impacts another life." JRF has provided scholarships to hundreds of kids across this country, young men and women who may not have had the opportunity to go to college through other means. Rachel started the foundation in 1973 as a living legacy to Jackie. The foundation boasts a 92 percent graduation rate for its scholars. The primary limit on the foundation has been resources. JRF receives 37 qualified applications for every student we are able to fund. As chairman, I am pleased to announce the foundation, in this year of celebration, will be launching a $12 million endowment campaign as a continuing legacy to Jackie.

The good book of Ecclesiastes tells us that for every person there is a time and a season. We should follow Jackie’s lead and commit ourselves to his ideals. And if we have that type of commitment, it will continue to be Jack’s time and his season.

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