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Jackie Robinson's legacy endures amid racial division in United States

In centennial celebration of his birth, there will be many tributes to the American hero who broke a barrier in a  nation where much work still needs to be done.   

Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson poses in

Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player Jackie Robinson poses in this 1952 file photo. Photo Credit: AP

The racial abuse rained down from the stands, spewed out from the dugout and spilled onto the field. It even hit him from his own clubhouse.

Jackie Robinson felt it away from the ballpark, too. He took a lot in the name of integration when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But he never told his daughter what he went through while she was growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, in the 1950s. No one did.

Then one day Sharon Robinson saw a movie. She was about 8 or 9. The film starred her dad in the title role — “The Jackie Robinson Story.” And now she knew.

“That was pretty upsetting to me,” she said. “I didn’t understand it. It took me a long time before I could really talk about it. We always talked about race and religion and all in our family. But to talk personal about what was the life of my father, I didn’t do that until I was a senior in college. I knew I didn’t have long with him. He was not well. I asked him a lot of questions then.”

If he were alive today, Jackie Robinson would be 100. His birthday was Thursday. So how would this champion of civil rights and social justice, who died at 53 in 1972, feel about the current polarized state of the United States?

“The way we all do,” Sharon said. “We feel sickened by the division and by the lack of respect for people from different cultures and religions. So it’s a frightening time for those of us who believe that we came a distance from a black-and-white world into this global world. And now to have to fight for the right for all of us to live in America safely and respectfully, it’s very upsetting.

“So I know he’d be upset by it as well.”

The light is starting to shine even brighter on Robinson’s values, story and legacy.

His daughter was with her mom, Robinson’s 96-year-old widow, Rachel, on Thursday for the opening of the exhibit “In the Dugout with Jackie Robinson” at the Museum of the City of New York. That was opening day for the Hall of Famer’s centennial celebration, which will be experienced in several cities this year.

It will end at 75 Varick St. in lower Manhattan in December with the opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum.

“I think it’s a really unique opportunity for our sport to refocus on baseball’s finest moment and really a moment that’s of tremendous significance in American history,” commissioner Rob Manfred said about the 2019 agenda.

“I think Jackie’s message is one that is durable and timeless. It’s an important message for people to be focused on. It was 10 years ago. It is today. I think Jackie is a symbol of the promotion of diversity and equal opportunity in society.”

Besides the annual Jackie Robinson Day at major-league ballparks on April 15, when all players wear his No. 42, there are plans for a national traveling exhibit, including a stop at the July All-Star Game in Cleveland, speakers at schools and forums with athletes who are activists. There will be a panel discussion and jazz concert Tuesday in Robinson’s honor at his alma mater, UCLA. Bernie Williams will be one of the performers.

The events will help the Jackie Robinson Museum with fundraising, marketing and promoting its programs. MLB is a centennial celebration sponsor and a donor to the museum cause.

“My dad fought his entire life for equity and justice,” his daughter said. “[It’s great] to now have a museum that children and adults can come to, a physical facility, and learn about the history certainly, but more importantly, a place for them, we hope, to share their ideas on race and religion and talk about how they’re feeling about their experiences.

“So we’re very excited about the programming that we’re going to be able to do within the museum so that it’s not just a physical structure, that it’s a living experience.”

The Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships to minority students, raised $28 million for the museum’s construction. It’s trying to raise $4 million for personnel and marketing and $10 million for a starting endowment.

Foundation president and CEO Della Britton Baeza said there will be character education at the museum, a program geared to “young grade-school and middle-school students up through adulthood where we talk about and role-play about good character.”

“Particularly now with the polarization in our country, politically, socially, I think a figure like Jackie Robinson really does personify the best in us,” she said. “He personifies the notion of empathy. He personifies the notion of humanitarianism. We’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all God’s children. These are values we need to make sure we put before particularly our young people.”

Robinson suffered from diabetes and heart disease and ultimately died of a heart attack. He had three children, Sharon, David and Jackie Jr., who died in a vehicular accident the year before his father died.

Sharon had just turned 7 when her dad officially retired after 10 years with Brooklyn, negating a trade to the rival Giants after the 1956 season.

“After he finished playing baseball, he was right into Chock full o’Nuts [as a vice president] and working with the NAACP, raising funds, traveling the country,” she said. “He didn’t look back so much.”

Now Sharon lives in Florida and serves as an educational consultant for MLB and vice chairman for the Jackie Robinson Foundation board of directors. She promotes a legacy that goes way beyond her dad’s .311 average, six All-Star selections and 1955 World Series title.

“It really came down to his words where he talked about ‘a life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives,’ ” Sharon Robinson said. “That was my dad. He believed in having an impact.”

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