There was a time, not so long ago, when you could ask a major league player about Jackie Robinson and get a shrug. The league retired his number in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his debut, in the presence of President Clinton. It made for a beautiful ceremony, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Jackie Robinson Day really took off.
That’s when Ken Griffey Jr. called Bud Selig, then Major League Baseball’s commissioner. To this day, Selig is amazed at what Griffey told him.
“‘A lot of the guys’ – and I’m quoting him directly – ‘don’t know who Jackie Robinson is,'” Selig told me the other day.
Griffey asked if he could wear the retired No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Within two years, every player did, and the annual commemoration serves a dual purpose: a regular checkpoint in baseball’s quest to regain prominence in the black community and a celebration of Robinson breaking the color barrier.
“I think it’s the most important and powerful moment in baseball history,” Selig said.
That’s what makes the opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum so important. Through this 75th anniversary of his debut, MLB has done a commendable job of reclaiming and sharing Robinson’s legacy as a baseball player.
The museum also tells the story of Robinson’s amazing life off the field. Walk into the museum and the first room you see is not one celebrating his athletic achievements.
“It was absolutely intentional,” said Della Britton, president and executive director of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
“Even if you come up with the idea of seeing baseball history and learning more about it, you need to walk through this space that is about his commitment to economic opportunity, civil rights and social justice.”
Robinson’s Life Purposes are displayed in this room in large capital letters: SOLDIER, CAMPAIGN, PUBLIC SERVANT, ACTIVIST, FOUNDER, ORGANIZER, DEMONSTRATOR, ENTREPRENEUR, CITIZEN and more.
There are the “by the numbers” displays you might expect in a museum about a sports star, but “3” is the number of presidential candidates he’s campaigned for, “4” is the number of presidents he’s past “6” is the number of years his Harlem department store was open, and “1949” is the year he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Of all the artifacts on display, Britton said she was perhaps proudest of sharing Robinson’s testimony before that committee, with his handwritten notes alongside his typewritten speech.
The white media, she said, played up the perceived feud between Robinson and Paul Robeson, a prominent black actor and singer who allegedly said black Americans shouldn’t go to war against the Soviet Union when the communists there treated blacks with dignity . Robinson called the alleged comments “silly.”
But the museum also reveals black media coverage of the testimony, which instead focused on Robinson’s core message: “The fact that it’s a communist denouncing court injustice, police brutality and lynching when it happens doesn’t change anything the truth of his allegations. … Negroes were agitated long before there was a Communist Party, and they will remain agitated long after the Party is gone, unless Jim Crow is gone by then.”
The congressman who asked Robinson to be patient that day asked Robinson if black people hadn’t been patient long enough. To this point, the museum highlights a 1950 letter to Robinson from Branch Rickey, the Dodgers manager, who was celebrated enough to have signed it.
Robinson had expressed an interest in administration. “I hope the day will come soon when it’s quite possible that you can be considered,” Rickey wrote. In 1972, Robinson died without ever seeing a black man in the major leagues.
The museum opens to the public on Monday. Robinson’s team got a private tour last Wednesday before the Dodgers played the New York Mets.
“Jackie’s passion was civil rights and equality even more than baseball,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “It was more like baseball, it was just a way for him to use his voice, which is pretty cool to watch and actually quite inspiring.”
That is the museum’s ultimate mission – not just to share how Robinson made a difference, but to encourage you to do the same.
In one section of the museum, visitors can choose one of Robinson’s causes – fair housing, equal pay, police brutality, school integration, job creation or drug policy involvement – and learn what he did to advance the cause, and what someone could do , to move forward the same cause today. For example, Robinson helped found the Freedom National Bank, which provided jobs, loans, and mortgages to the Harlem community.
In another area, visitors can see and hear testimonies from respected Americans about how Robinson impacted their lives – from some athletes, yes, but also from figures like former President George W. Bush and former Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.
The museum is very interactive, and your visit will be guided by your interests. That was a lovely morning for my 12-year-old daughter, Aria, who isn’t a huge baseball fan and told me that she sees most museums as places where you can “walk around and look at things while your parents gasp.” and point at things. ”
She said: “I learned a lot more in this museum than I thought I would without realizing it because it was so much fun.”
If your interests are limited to baseball, there’s plenty to enjoy here, including a scale model of Ebbets Field, with legendary Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber calling the action. (Britton said that Vin Scully, who starred in telling a classic story about ice skating with Robinson, is also quoted at the museum.)
But the museum is an inspirational and respectful tribute to a man whose statue at Dodger Stadium includes this Robinson quote: “A life is not important except in terms of the impact it has on other lives.”
Jack Harris, a Times contributor, contributed to this report.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2022-09-05/new-jackie-robinson-museum-entertaining-educational-42 Jackie Robinson Museum devoted to civil rights, off-field work