Rachel Robinson, right, widow of baseball immortal Jackie Robinson,
accepts a Congressional Gold Medal award on behalf of her late
husband from Senate minority leader Nancy Pelosi as Pres. Bush looks on.
She was a pillar of strength
behind a man of courage
By MAURY ALLEN
Rachel Robinson is 83 and still beautiful.
When I talked to her last week at the Baseball Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, New York, it suddenly dawned on me that she is the Eleanor Roosevelt of the games history.
She has carried her husbands legacy proudly for 34 years since Jackie Robinson died suddenly in 1972, a man hardly appreciated in his lifetime for pulling 18 per cent of the American population along with him into the American dream machine.
Jackie was a Hall of Fame baseball player with a heavy chip on his broad shoulders. No one dies at the age of 53 with a broken body unless he has lifted great weight all of his life.
Last week there were 17 players and executives from the old Negro Leagues being introduced as Hall of Famers along with the one elected by the baseball writers, Bruce Sutter, at the glorious sun-filled dedication ceremonies.
Rachel Robinson, proud of her legacy, was honored and fussed over by many at the event. Effa Manley, a white lady who believed in freedom for all, was elected to the same center where the plaques of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Rapid Robert Feller and all of the others among the 278 selectees of 15,500 who have played the game, now reside in glory.
It was Ladies Day as much as it was the Negro League day.
Manley made it as the first woman selected for the Hall.
Rachel Robinson made it as the First Lady of the baseball land.
Rachel was studying nursing at UCLA in 1940 when this big athlete named Robinson, a star in football, basketball, track and even a little baseball, was fixed up with her.
Through World War II, they connected and corresponded before Jackie was signed to a Brooklyn contract in 1945 and ordered to report to the Montreal Royals in 1946.
Get married, Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey suggested to Robinson when he described his life off the field and his connection with his gal pal.
They started in Montreal together in 1946.
I was supposed to scout Jackie as a man, not as a player, former Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi told me. I went up to Montreal and saw Rachel sitting with half a dozen of the other wives. She was as comfortable as any of them. I knew then if the wives got along the players would get along.
Some did that next season of 1947 when Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn and some didnt. Rachel made it easier for many of them.
She supported her tempestuous husband through all those years from 1947 to 1956. Jackies retirement letter sits proudly in a corner of the Hall of Fame Museum. It is about his choice to enter business with the Chock Full O Nuts Company rather than play for the New York Giants, a team the Dodgers had traded him to a few months earlier.
Rachel was strong through the business years and was at his side during the passions of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
They held each others hands at the funeral for their damaged son, Jackie Junior, after he returned from Vietnam with drug problems and later was killed in a car crash.
Rachel can brag now about her daughter, Sharon, a writer and baseball executive, who spoke of the historic legacy of her father at the induction ceremony and her son, David, a coffee planter in Africa and father of 10 children.
We see him here every year and we visit there every year, Rachel said.
Rachel laughed when I told her the statue of Jackie and Pee Wee Reese, first suggested by Stan Isaacs of TheColumnists.Com, survived well its first roaring winter in Brooklyn.
Im very proud of that, she said.
Buck ONeil, who played in the old Negro Leagues when Jackie was with the Kansas City Monarchs and later broke a barrier as the first black coach in the big leagues, hugged Rachel warmly after speaking strongly in support of the nominations of many of his old pals. He is 94.
Still single, ladies, he advised the crowd, to much laughter.
In an historic note, Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, once considered the first candidate for the big leagues after World War II ended, pointed out how his contract was respected by organized baseball.
The Giants paid Mrs. Manley $10,000 to get me from Newark, he said. The Dodgers didnt pay Kansas City anything to get Jackie.
Wisely, in 1945, Robinson had signed for one year with the Monarchs. He really wanted to make a few dollars before he took a job coaching at an all-black school.
I guess Mr. Rickey changed all that, Rachel said.
Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn organization in October of 1945, a good nine years before Brown versus the Board of Education integrated schools and a good 20 years before the civil rights demonstrations forced legitimate, democratic integration in the United States.
I think of Effa Manley now as a brave lady, proud of her team and her town in a different time.
I think of Rachel Robinson now as a figure in American history equal to Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, the gigantic pillars of strength beside the history makers.
Jackie Robinson integrated the Great American Pastime. Rachel Robinson is worthy of a statue of her own for standing next to him in troubled times and alone in extolling his legend for all the years since 1972.
©2006 by Maury Allen. The Maury Allen caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photo is courtesy of the White House. This column first posted Aug. 7, 2006.
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