Jackie Robinson is considered one of the most influential figures in baseball history, and now a number of celebrities are paying tribute to his legacy. Among those paying homage was Dusty Baker, who recalled being inspired by Robinson’s example more than 50 years ago.
Billie Jean King, Dusty Baker, and Chuck D are among those who have reflected on Jackie Robinson’s impact. The baseball legend is being honored in the “Jackie Robinson Day” at the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.
“On the muscles of his arms and the meaning of his life, he helped us soar from despair to hope.” Rev. Jesse Jackson’s eulogy for Jackie Robinson, delivered on October 27, 1972
He takes little steps and asks for help.
His speech is stuttering at times.
He’s enthusiastic and smart, broad and encouraging as he copes with Parkinson’s illness.
Rev. Jesse Jackson is now 80 years old, a half-century after his moving eulogy for Jackie Robinson. On ESPN’s request, he returned to Riverside Church in New York a quarter-century later to recapture the intensity and poignancy of that dedication.
In February, we paid a visit to the Rainbow PUSH Coalition’s founder and president in Chicago, where he was one of a dozen participants in an ESPN series of personal observations coming up to the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947. Each “Jackie to Me” narrative offers a personal viewpoint on what Robinson means to them — and society. It includes social justice heroes, music icons, all-time greats, and up-and-coming sportsmen.
“Jackie was in the heart of a racist headwind, and he bucked it, withstood it, and put everything at it,” Jackson recalls. “He debunked the black inferiority myth.”
With the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling abolishing segregated schools, Rosa Parks’ refusal to be pushed to the rear of a Montgomery, Ala. bus, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s rise to fame, civil rights history was written.
Jackson characterizes the drive and influence of Robinson’s boldness and achievement as “he set the pace for the race and time immemorial.” ” He made it more acceptable for Blacks to speak up with authority.
“Dr. King had a strong bond with him, and he had a strong bond with Dr. King.”
As the first black student to integrate a public elementary school in Louisiana, Ruby Bridges feels Jackie Robinson paved the way for her.
“In my opinion,” Ruby Bridges adds, “Jackie Robinson is the father of the civil rights movement.”
Bridges’ career as a civil rights activist and symbol began in 1960, when she was six years old and notably became the first Black student at a New Orleans primary school. The sight of US Marshals taking Bridges to the front door, away from a crowd of anti-integration white demonstrators, was immortalized in a Norman Rockwell picture.
Bridges, who had already received Bill Clinton’s Presidential Citizens Medal, visited the White House in 2011 and met the country’s first Black president.
Barack Obama embraced her as they stood in front of Norman Rockwell’s painting. “This isn’t about me and him,” Bridges claims she thought as she saw 10-12 others in the room sobbing. It was about Jackie Robinson’s, Dr. King’s, Rosa Parks’ sacrifices, and the three young men killed in Mississippi (civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner).
“It wasn’t until then that it struck me. I knew how significant this was at the time and how much it meant to so many individuals. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Oscar Robertson describes firsthand encounters with Jackie Robinson and discusses his impact on the civil rights movement.
Indignities and insults, threats and danger were all part of the experience for Black athletes who followed in Robinson’s footsteps.
Oscar Robertson, a basketball player who amazed as a child when he saw Robinson play in Cincinnati, went to an all-Black Indianapolis high school and won two state titles. “I was warned over the phone that if I played, I’d be shot,” he recounts of one occasion before playing an all-white squad.
Despite the fact that Robertson’s situation was nothing like Robinson’s, he had to deal with incidents of separate and unequal accommodations from his University of Cincinnati squad when on the road. He claims the squad stayed at the Shamrock Hilton in Houston on one such occasion.
“And then the coach comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, you can’t remain here,’” Robertson explains. “I’m 17 or 18 years old.” I assumed he meant the whole squad couldn’t remain. ‘No, no, they don’t want you at this hotel,’ he added.
“They had a Texas Southern University there, so I remained on a cot by myself for the day, lying there thinking about what was going on…the closer the game got, the more agitated I grew.”
“I hid it from myself.” I didn’t utter a single thing to anybody. I suited up and walked out onto the court. I just walked to the middle court and remained there. I didn’t fire a single shot. Of course, people began booing and hurling little objects at me. “I’m not sure why I did it, but I did it,” Robertson admits. “To be honest, it’s simply something I felt within.”
“I was exposed to racism, discrimination, and intolerance, and I battled a lot,” Willie O’Ree, dubbed the “Jackie Robinson of hockey” for becoming the National Hockey League’s first Black player as a Boston Bruin in 1958, says.
“I fought because I had to, not because I wanted to,” says the New Brunswick native from Fredericton. “I have never fought because of racist statements or slurs.”
“Opposing players basically wanted to know what I was made of…at the time, none of the players wore helmets or face shields, and these opposition guys were constantly firing shots at my head.”
O’Ree claims he had no idea he was an NHL pioneer when he got in, so he didn’t feel any pressure, but he did bear a different load. He was concealing the fact that he had never recovered his right eye vision, which he had lost in a junior hockey injury.
“I was afraid of injuring my good eye,” O’Ree recalls. “But I forgot about it; I just forgot that I was blind and went out to play. ‘If I get hurt, I get hurt,’ I remarked, ‘but I’ve never strayed from my game.’”
O’Ree believed baseball was his game as a youngster, and he and his youth team even met Robinson on a trip to Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in 1949. Robinson was astonished to find that a Black boy was interested in hockey, according to O’Ree, and advised him to “work hard and remain focused” in whatever sport he chose.
After seeing intolerance and segregation during a 1956 Milwaukee Braves tryout camp in Georgia, O’Ree vowed to devote his life to Canada’s national sport. He ran across Robinson again in 1962, this time at an NAACP function in Los Angeles, and to his surprise, the retired Dodger recalled him from 1949.
O’Ree, 86, says he has no idea what happened to the images from his two encounters with Robinson, but he does have a framed portrait of the baseball pioneer on his wall.
Robinson’s call-up in 1947 faced acknowledged attempts to sabotage it, unlike O’Ree’s unreported 1958 call-up. Dodgers teammates began a petition to keep him off the club, and the St. Louis Cardinals contemplated a boycott in 1947, according to a source.
Then, in 1997, the ESPN “Outside the Lines” documentary “Breaking the Line: Jackie Robinson’s Legacy” revealed, through interviews with 93 of Robinson’s 107 living former National League opponents, that players across the league were voting on whether or not to stage an opening day strike — and that the covert plans for a walkout only came to light at the last minute.
“He received death threats, he got all sorts of crank letters, warning letters,” Robinson’s wife, Rachel, recalled in the 1997 episode. You can’t take in all of the things that make you nervous, so you start to reject or ignore them. However, as the letters became more detailed about what they intended to do to him, I began reporting them to the team.
“I’d characterize Jack as a race guy; he was preoccupied with the destiny and travail of our race; it was critical to contribute to advancement, a concern that was often more significant than what was going on with him.”
Robinson was mocked by opposition players who brought black cats, melons, fried chicken, and other nefarious props into their dugouts. Robinson was hit by pitches more in the first two months of the 1947 season than any other player in all of 1946, according to the ’97 program.
David Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s eldest surviving son, talks about the principles his father taught him.
Robinson’s son, David, claims that his father gained courage from remembering his origins during his father’s physical and psychological anguish on and off the field.
“He grew up without a father in the family. He aspired to be someone who could help his mother, who grew up as a sharecropper and eventually worked as a domestic worker in a family where money was constantly tight.
“As he grew older, he was able to witness his grandmother, who was born a slave, and his mother’s background as an oppressed citizen, and he knew he wanted to make a difference on a familial level.” And when he had the chance to have a national effect, he saw it as an extension of his mission to liberate his family from tyranny, which was also present in the country.
“All he had to go through, he believed, was hardly a hardship in comparison to what had happened in his family before him. That chance, as horrible as it was, as cruel as the opposing folks were, greatly outweighed what he had to go through.”
Dusty Baker explains Jackie Robinson’s influence on his management career.
When Dusty Baker was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s, former teammates Joe Black, Roy Campanella, Jim Gilliam, and Don Newcombe educated him on what Robinson had to overcome. Baker had seen his Atlanta Braves teammate Hank Aaron face unrelenting criticism as he approached and eclipsed Babe Ruth’s home run record a few years before.
Baker, who is currently the manager of the Houston Astros, got threatening hate mail while he was the manager of the Chicago Cubs, similar to what Robinson and Aaron received.
“The FBI came to meet me — part of the FBI’s Hate Crimes Division — because they felt they’d mailed me anthrax,” Baker explains. “After that, my wife was terrified of me going out alone.” She was terrified for my safety.
“I feel like Jackie and the great Hank Aaron prepared me for this.”
Baker was first exposed to what Robinson had gone through and how he had reacted when he was a young lad who would get into fights. He claims that his father, who trained him, always used Robinson as an example of how to act. Despite the fact that Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr. claims he became weary of hearing it from his father, he grew to like Robinson, as did his father.
Both Bakers and Robinson served in the military, and Robinson was court martialed and acquitted after defending himself against charges stemming from his refusal to board a bus in Texas.
Bobby Bradford discusses his homage to Jackie Robinson, “Stealin’ Home,” a jazz piece.
Bobby Bradford, a jazz singer, composer, and instructor who served in the military, considers Robinson a hero for fighting hatred and prospering under extreme conditions.
When the Baseball Reliquary, an organization dedicated to promoting art and culture through baseball, approached Bradford about creating a musical tribute for Robinson’s 100th birthday in 2019, he was overjoyed.
Bradford, now 87 and a 2021 retiree from the Pomona College faculty, says, “Number one was, ‘Thank you, Jesus.” “This is the first and most likely the final commission I’ve ever received. I’ve composed a lot of music, but I’ve never been approached about a commission with a specific objective.”
The first tune on the CD “Stealin’ Home,” which Bradford and friends recorded from the suite he produced to commemorate Robinson, is “Lieutenant Jackie.”
Chuck D of Public Enemy discusses Jackie Robinson’s influence on his career.
Robinson’s tenacity and disobedience served as the foundation for some of hip hop’s most pioneering work, according to a legend in the genre.
According to Chuck D, the leader and co-founder of Public Enemy, he tries to capture the overwhelming burden and historic suffering reflected in Robinson’s transition from his early Dodger days — when his agreement with team president Branch Rickey meant he had to turn the other cheek and keep his bubbling emotions bottled up — to being able to let out his true intensity on the field and beyond.
“I would put a lot of like semi-images right behind him, like slave ships, all sorts of things, also following his descent, like a country of billions behind him,” Chuck D explains.
When he was writing “”Welcome to the Terrordome,” he says, and the opening sentence sums up Robinson perfectly: “I’ve had so much stuff on my mind.” I’m not going to lose.”
Chuck D credits his love of baseball and Robinson to his father, who grew up idolizing the Dodgers and Robinson, as did many other Black families of the time. Chuck D was 12 years old when Robinson died, and he claims his death pushed him more closer to the sport.
“It was as though the president had passed away. It was on the news, and everyone was there. I decided that baseball would be the finest sport to pursue. I mean, I’m easily swayed. This is an important figure in baseball. Even though I’m a huge baseball fan, it was like a firm stamp, like ‘Damn right.’ Baseball is the sport.’”
According to David Robinson, a discussion Robinson had with his son while he was dying has a lesson for everyone.
“He phoned me three days before he died. It was about 2:00 p.m. at the time. ‘Son, let’s take the day off and go to the races,’ Dad remarked while I was at work. Going to the races was one of his favorite pastimes. Golf was his favorite activity, but he also enjoyed going to the racetrack.
“‘Dad, I’m overloaded,’ I replied. I’m trapped within and can’t get out.’ However, thinking back on his death three days later, I have a feeling that if I had gone, I would have heard some words from a father who knew his health was failing, that he was about to die away, and that he wanted to spend an afternoon with his son. So, my advice to all sons and daughters, even grandchildren, is to’spend time with, learn from, and be with your elders, and reflect on what their goals were.’
“We’re all Jackie Robinson’s offspring,” says his son, who has lived in Tanzania for the last 40 years with his Tanzanian wife, raising their 10 children and running a coffee plantation. He’s also a member of the Jackie Robinson Foundation’s board of directors.
“We may celebrate the achievements of those who have succeeded in our society and declare, “I, too, can and will be a challenger and builder of a better society.” And that, more than anything else, is the most important thing in a lifetime; a batting average or a bank account cannot compare to what an individual can achieve for his family, race, society, and the world.”
Billie Jean King discusses how Jackie Robinson affected her battle for equality and inclusiveness.
Tennis star Billie Jean King, who was three years old when Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, is one such person who has dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights and equality for everyone.
“As a youngster and as an adult, Jackie Robinson pushed me to keep going and to keep battling discrimination,” King adds.
King credits Robinson’s tenacity for her 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis victory against Bobby Riggs and for decades of attempts to convince her sport to provide equal prize money to women.
“It definitely helps me sometimes to step back and think, ‘What about Jackie Robinson?’ when things are difficult.”
King, who is now a part-owner of the Dodgers, says she enjoys seeing his number 42 on display and Rachel Robinson’s tireless efforts to carry on his legacy.
On Oct. 27, 1972, Rachel Robinson was escorted out of Jackie Robinson’s burial by her son David (left) and Rev. Jesse Jackson. Getty Images/Bettmann Archive
On Oct. 24, 1972, shortly after her husband’s death at the age of 53, Rachel Robinson contacted Jesse Jackson early in the morning. Jackson had been a personal friend of the Robinsons for many a decade, and she was now asking him to fulfill her late husband’s request of having him speak at his burial.
“I was in pain for a long period, but all I remember is writing that sermon over and again,” Jackson recalls. “I’d weep every time I could simply sit.”
“And I pondered what he meant to the social justice movement… The problem was that I idealized Jackie much too much. I adored him; he was a hero to me.
“I was frightened to death. All of the major preachers waited in line to see who would say what in the program. Jackie Robinson’s funeral is a major occasion for preachers.”
Because cameras were not allowed during the ceremony, Jackson’s eulogy was not videotaped, and entire audio recordings and texts are hard to come across, although he stated, in part:
“Pain, anguish, and toil are no longer with us.” Jackie has been rescued. His adversaries should leave him alone. His body will rest, but his soul, thoughts, and influence will go on forever, as fastened to human development as the stars in the sky, the sun’s rays, and the moon’s radiance. A tomb couldn’t hold this intellect, this purpose down…
“No cemetery will be able to house this corpse. It’s a thing of the past, and we’re all better off because the temple of God, the man of convictions, the guy on a mission, came this way.”
This article included contributions from ESPN senior managing producers Jeff Ausiello and Lauren Stowell, who co-produced the “Jackie to Me” television series with Willie Weinbaum.