It’s been almost six decades since Jackie Robinson, grandson of slaves, first put on a Brooklyn Dodgers’ uniform with the number 42 and walked out onto Ebbets Field to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. “Take Me out to the Ballgame” is America’s unofficial national anthem. So it should be no surprise that this country’s first tortured dialogues about segregation in “the land of the free” would focus on the baseball diamond.
“Hostile white players, many his own teammates, and suspicious white baseball fans waited for him to fail. He didn’t,” says his daughter, Sharon Robinson, who was six when her father left baseball and moved his family to North Stamford, an easy commute to Manhattan, where he was a corporate executive at Chock full o’Nuts coffee. An outspoken crusader for civil rights on the board of the NAACP during the turbulent 1960s, Jackie was also an entrepreneur, radio commentator, newspaper columnist and presidential adviser.
“My father’s fame soon transcended baseball; his name became synonymous with decency, morality, the fierce pursuit of justice and the battle for equal rights,” says Sharon, a former nurse-midwife at Norwalk Hospital, now an author and educational consultant for MLB. “His life paralleled a particularly intense period of American history, which makes his story a great teaching tool,” she says. “Through the Jackie Robinson Foundation, created in his memory by my mother in 1973, his legacy continues to grow.”
In 1956 Jackie and his wife, Rachel, chose to raise their family in what was then a lily-white suburb, building a house on a parcel of land bordering a small lake on Cascade Road. House hunting had been fraught with rejection. The owners of one home refused to allow Rachel inside. Another was pulled off the market when she offered the asking price. A series on Jim Crow in housing in the Bridgeport Herald targeted Stamford. That led to support from a group of local ministers and from Andrea Simon, wife of the publisher Richard Simon, whose broker showed Rachel the Cascade Road property. The Spelke brothers, two Jewish bankers, saw to it that the Robinsons got their mortgage.
Stamford was not Little Rock. No crosses were burned on the lawn when the Robinsons moved in, but the neighbors across the street were horrified and sold their house immediately. “That was America in those days,” says Joe Mehan, a Stamford native, then a field producer for NBC News, who bought that same house across the street in 1965.
“The Jewish population, always more liberal, was then very sparse — there were no ‘Welcome, Jackie Robinson’ parades. No matter that he was a national sports hero.”
Mehan points out that the “serve-them-and-then-smash-the-glass” policy toward “colored people” at a local Stamford pharmacy owned by Vincent Giampietro, a Connecticut state legislator who served in both the State House of Representatives (1939–1940) and the State Senate (1945), was well known.
Four years before he became a neighbor of the Robinsons, Mehan met Jackie at a 1961 town meeting called to challenge racially discriminatory zoning lines being drawn for Stamford’s newly built Rippowam High School. As founder of Stamford’s first Catholic Interracial Council, Mehan chaired a committee advocating integration. “Jackie was on the committee,” he says, “so we got to know and respect each other.”
A year later, the vote at an impassioned open hearing overruled the Board of Education, preventing what would have been a vast racial imbalance. Mehan recalls Jackie biding his time, then giving a powerful speech. “Walking like a baseball player, this big man approached the podium,” Joe says. “He said what he thought without anger. He maintained his dignity — that was Jackie Robinson.”
Robinson grew up being treated as a second-class citizen amidst the not-so-subtle bigotry of Pasadena, California, during the first half of the twentieth century. Jim Crow lurked just beneath the surface; blacks were barred from the local swimming pool and ordered to the back of the bus. When his mother, Mallie, saved enough money from her job as a maid to purchase a house, she sent her light-skinned niece to negotiate the deal. The house was in a white neighborhood, and soon thereafter a cross was burned on the front lawn.
Jackie inherited his mother’s determination and strong faith that God had a purpose for him. For the man who would later be described by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. as a “freedom rider before freedom rides” — someone for whom first-class citizenship was the only kind acceptable — keeping his promise to Dodgers’ General Manager Branch Rickey to turn the other cheek for three years no matter what was a victory of clearheaded vision over natural instincts.
Insults ranged from hardballs aimed at his head by opposing pitchers to ostracism by teammates; some, led by southerner Dixie Walker, had signed a petition to try to keep him off the Dodgers. Jackie had to ignore vicious verbal assaults by rival coaches; racist heckling from the stands; and segregated, substandard accommodations on the road and during spring training in Florida. With Rachel’s steadfast support, he kept his cool even when death threats came in the mail.
“It was a mixed blessing to be Jackie Robinson,” Sharon says. “There was the glory — then the price that had to be paid.” Having a famous and outspoken father directly impacted his three children’s lives, as did his decision to live in North Stamford. Sharon and her brothers, Jackie Jr. and David, found themselves the only blacks in a sea of white children, circumstance assigning them the job of desegregating the schools they attended. Classmates used to ask why their palms were lighter than the tops of their hands. Were they dirty?
At age six Sharon was the only black kid at her summer day camp. One afternoon the movie they ran was The Jackie Robinson Story. “There was my dad playing himself up on the screen, but sounding strangely tentative,” she says. “It made me really uncomfortable; he was my hero and this made-for-Hollywood script actually had Branch Rickey calling him ‘boy,’ which, by the way, never happened.”
Sharon was a painfully shy student in the Stamford public school system. At home she was confident, very athletic and comfortable with friends in the neighborhood, including her best friend: blonde, blue-eyed Christy Joyce, who lived nearby. “We were inseparable,” Sharon says, “until junior high school when I realized I could not follow where she was going. In those years at a certain age, blacks and whites just did not mix socially.” Sharon called Christy up one day to say, “I cannot be your friend anymore.” The two never spoke again.
David, the youngest, chose to fight. At New Canaan Country Day School, he fought every day in response to being called “nigger” by classmates. The torment eased when he made a white friend who became his ally, but the experience may have influenced his eventual decision to live and raise his family in Tanzania, where today he grows coffee beans on a farm called Sweet Unity and runs a coffee cooperative through which he and other area farmers sell their crops internationally.
Jackie Jr., the eldest, had the additional burden of carrying his father’s name. “Those shoes were impossible to fill and soon he just stopped trying,” says Sharon. “He didn’t have the easy relationship with our father that David and I did.” Sharon believes that learning disabilities, then unrecognized, contributed to Jackie Jr.’s academic difficulties and gradual estrangement from his family. “The work I do with schoolchildren is one way that I honor my brother,” says Sharon, who dedicated Promises to Keep, a picture biography of her father aimed at nine- to fourteen-year-olds, to Jackie Jr., who died in 1971 at age twenty-four in an automobile accident on the Merritt Parkway.
“Jackie Jr. finally had overcome the drug habit he’d developed serving in Vietnam,” Sharon says. “He had been arranging a jazz concert at our home to raise funds for Daytop, where he’d graduated from patient to counselor. My parents were so proud of him and at last, he and my father were healing old wounds.”
Recalling growing up in Stamford, she says, “I once blamed a lot on the city, but realized later that some of it was me needing to find myself.” Sharon chose to send her son, Jesse Robinson Simms, to King Low–Heywood Thomas School for his high school years.
Thinking back to childhood on Cascade Road, she smiles, remembering being part of a gang of kids always playing down at the lake. “There were Saturday morning games of Monopoly or Scrabble,” she says. “Dad would join in. And yeah, he played to win!” Thanksgiving touch football games kicked off on the sprawling front lawn, which Jackie groomed to perfection every week, executing hairpin turns on his riding lawn mower.
Neighborhood kids were always welcome to play baseball. “I can picture every one of the boulders that marked the bases,” Sharon says. Joe Mehan, whose friendship with the Robinsons grew with the years, describes how his son Chris, then around nine, came home one day to say, “That Mr. Robinson is so nice. He came out and pitched for both teams.”
Joe attended all the Afternoons of Jazz at the Robinsons’' home beginning with the first in 1963, held to raise bail money for jailed civil rights activists. “The concert that Jackie Jr. was arranging, a fundraiser for Daytop, was held on schedule after he died,” Mehan says. “Rachel and Jackie were heartbroken, but they wanted to support what their son had been working for. It was terribly sad.”
Jackie Robinson attended his daughter’s capping ceremony at Howard University, where she was training, incognito, to become a nurse. “I needed not to be ‘Jackie Robinson’s daughter’ for a while,” she explains. “I had to find out who Sharon was.” The “moving up” ceremony was the right time to go public. “I was full of confidence, my life on track,” she says. “I’m so glad Dad was there to share it.”
Sharon treasures early images of her father, who died at age fifty-three from complications related to chronic diabetes. “At the end, he was almost blind; this man who’d been such an incredible athlete could barely walk,” she says, “and he never complained. He did what he could do, challenging the status quo even in the last months of his life.”
Along with her work for children through Major League Baseball, Sharon serves on the board of directors of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, as does her brother David. Rachel Robinson, now a vigorous eighty-four, has stepped down as chairman of the board but remains actively involved. “Mom’s really hands-on,” Sharon says. “So her wisdom and vision continue to guide us.”
Since 1973 the Jackie Robinson Foundation has distributed more than $13 million in scholarship awards, according to the JRF’s president and CEO, Della Britton Baeza. “We’ve helped more than 1,100 students from forty-three states and the District of Columbia,” she says. A Jackie Robinson Foundation Museum and Educational Center will soon open in lower Manhattan. The community outreach programs being planned will continue to educate future generations, promoting positive dialogue about race relations.
“Jackie Robinson believed that a life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” says Deborah Williams, a Stamford resident and second-generation JRF volunteer who has chaired the Connecticut region’s Scholar Selection Committee for the past twelve years. “We’re looking for young people who really understand that because we don’t just write you a check and say good-bye,” she explains. “Scholarship recipients become part of our JRF family and are expected to contribute to their communities and to ours.”
Norwalk’s Darryl Glover is someone who got that message. A Team 42/Mo Vaughn Endowment JRF Scholar, Darryl will graduate from Central Connecticut State University in 2007, the first in his family to earn a college degree. “I never knew my father; my mom raised me and my brother alone,” he says. “Learning how Jackie Robinson never gave up on a goal inspired me to succeed, and the people at the foundation have become my second family.” After graduation he will join Teach for America. “Then it’s law school,” he says smiling. “Be ready — you’ll hear good things about me!”
“There are so many success stories; we hire many of them at GE,” says Joyce Hergenhan of Fairfield, a retired General Electric executive who is currently on the JRF’s board of directors. Growing up, Joyce watched Jackie Robinson play baseball. “He was exciting,” she says, “so very quick and fiercely competitive.”
The JRF board, a deliberately multicultural group, includes Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union; former presidential candidate Steve Forbes; and always two scholar alums. Whether a student is already one of the best and the brightest or a diamond in the rough, the JRF’s mission is to provide financial assistance while building character. Their message is actively supported by contemporary leaders from Jack Welch to Spike Lee and by corporations like Unilever, General Electric and Goldman Sachs. “We’re shaping ambassadors for the future and sending them out to spread the values Jackie and Rachel Robinson stand for,” Deborah says. “That’s the legacy.”
For Sharon, an invitation to throw out the first pitch on opening day for the Seattle Mariners in 1997 was the catalyst for a new definition of community service. “I walked out onto the pitcher’s mound, threw that ball and the crowd went wild,” she says. “I realized that baseball was a great way to reach kids, a way of passing on what my dad taught me. It was my way of stepping up to the plate.”
Sharon pitched the idea and soon found herself creating and managing Major League Baseball’s national character education initiative, Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life, which uses baseball-themed activities to teach values and academic subjects.
“An essay contest is one of its most important components,” says Sharon. “We ask kids to write about things they’ve had to overcome in their lives. Then we celebrate the winners in their school communities and, eventually, at the ballpark.” Sharon tries to directly impact as many children as possible; she visits schools in MLB cities, bringing along baseball heroes like Derek Jeter, José Cruz and Ken Griffey Jr., who share their own stories of triumphing over adversity.
When not on tour, Sharon writes books for Scholastic Press. Jackie’s Nine: Jackie Robinson’s Values to Live By (2001), Promises to Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America (2004) and the novel Safe at Home (2006) all target nine-to-fourteen-year-olds. “This is the age group where peer pressure really kicks in,” she says. “Buying into the right value system can make all the difference.”
Discussions of “Jackie’s Nine” — courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence — soon become very real. “They translate it immediately into kidspeak as relates to their own experiences,” says Sharon, who starts the ball rolling by sharing the obstacles she’s had to overcome in her life. “I was engaged to a man who abused me; I raised my son Jesse as a single mother,” she recently told a group of Harlem schoolchildren. “I had to be strong for my son. I had to turn my grief over losing my brother and my father into something that could help other people.”
Surrounded by iconic photographs of her father at the JRF’s New York headquarters, Sharon points out that she was twenty-three when he died. “I never saw him play because I was too young during his final years in baseball,” she says. “It took a long time before I truly understood the sheer bravery of what he did.”
Thinking back to winter days in North Stamford, she recalls her dad out on the lake personally testing the ice before allowing anyone to put on skates. “That was Jackie Robinson — big, heavy, out there alone with a broomstick tapping his way along like a blind man to make sure the ice would be safe for us. And he couldn’t swim.”