Tribute to a Legend


There’s the chicken-scrawled letter from an angry fan in Cincinnati threatening to kill Jackie Robinson if he dared show his face at Crosley Field.

There’s the picture of Robinson at bat, hitting the dirt to avoid one of many bean balls that first season in 1947.

And there’s the photo of Robinson holding a bat with Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman. They held a bat because Chapman, who had hurled racial venom from the dugout, refused to shake hands for a conciliatory camera shot.

The images highlight “Stealing Home: How Jackie Robinson Changed America,” a provocative tribute by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to honor the legendary Dodger and baseball’s “noble experiment” that forced open locker room doors to countless other African Americans.


The exhibit, scheduled to open Monday at the center’s Museum of Tolerance, documents the time-honored story of Robinson’s battle to break baseball’s color barrier. But it also captures the painfully private moments that serve as a counterpoint to the most public of stories.

Behind every black-and-white photo and clip of grainy television footage, behind every jersey, pennant and baseball cap on display, lies a piece of Robinson’s lonely journey--one he welcomed as a matter of pride and duty.

“There’s not an American in this country who is free until every one of us are free,” Robinson is quoted as saying in the exhibit.

Robinson faced daunting prospects in his quest to integrate professional baseball.


Storyboards with near-life-size pictures tell how players on opposing teams spat at him and threatened to strike rather than play against him. Hotels in St. Louis and Philadelphia refused to serve him. Even Robinson’s Brooklyn teammates--the “Boys of Summer"--revolted against him.

Fellow players Duke Snyder and Pee Wee Reese recall in a video segment how some members of the ballclub--spearheaded by a group of hardheaded Southerners--circulated a petition during spring training to keep Robinson off the team.

The petition was quashed by Dodger President Branch Rickey, the mastermind behind Robinson’s historic leap into baseball.

Through all the adversity, Robinson never flinched in his mission. He had promised Rickey that he would not fight back in his first three years with the Dodgers. But as he gained prominence and popularity, he began to speak his mind. He openly criticized teams, including the almighty New York Yankees, for failing to hire black ballplayers and managers.

“I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have made it until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made.”

The tenacious attitude that saw Robinson through 10 turbulent years in Brooklyn still command attention half a century after he strode to home plate at Ebbets Field for his first major league at-bat.

It is that attitude, the Wiesenthal Center says, that transcends race and speaks to the hearts of all those who wage struggles for freedom.

“We are not honoring Jackie Robinson because he was a great African American. We are honoring him because he was a great American,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean, who grew up a Dodger fan in Brooklyn. “He never stepped away from a challenge. This man wasn’t going to sit in the back of the bus, literally or figuratively.”


Robinson biographer Jules Tygiel believes that the Wiesenthal exhibit--and the whirlwind of posthumous tributes this year--teach younger generations about the indignities of the past and the risks that Robinson and other heroes assumed in the name of equality.

Tygiel called Robinson a precursor of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, a figure who succeeded in dramatizing the plight of African Americans at a time when drinking fountains and lunch counters were still segregated.

“Jackie made African Americans visible and made white America take notice,” said Tygiel, a professor of American history at San Francisco State University. “He also made African Americans believe that things could change.”

By virtue of birth, Robinson seemed an unlikely figure to stake a claim in American history on behalf of his race. He was born in Georgia, the son of a sharecropper, the grandson of a slave.

Robinson’s father left the family when Jackie was a child, and his mother moved the family to Pasadena. Robinson excelled in sports at Pasadena Junior College, and later at UCLA. He was drafted into the Army during World War II but encountered the kind of racism he would experience later in baseball.

After refusing to move to the back of a military bus at Ft. Hood in Texas--regulations called for the desegregation of such buses--and defying the officers who tried to discipline him, Robinson was court-martialed for insubordination. A tribunal later exonerated him.

After leaving the Army, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs in the old Negro leagues. It was there that a scout for Rickey, who had been searching for just the right black man to break into baseball, noticed him.

“It took an intelligent man to understand the challenge,” Rickey is quoted as saying in the exhibit. “It took a man of great courage to accept it and see it through. He was both.”


Robinson, a 28-year-old rookie, quickly established himself as a dominant player in the National League. With a fierce slash-and-run style on the base paths, he lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to six World Series appearances in 10 years, winning the 1955 series against the archrival Yankees.

The Wiesenthal exhibit seeks to capture Robinson’s athletic brilliance and the excitement surrounding his years with the team that came to be known affectionately as “Dem Bums.”

As visitors enter the exhibit, they hear current Dodger announcer Vin Scully ticking off the names of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ opening day lineup on April 15, 1947. In another area of the exhibit, an antique wooden radio plays excerpts from a 1951 playoff game against the New York Giants and Game 1 of the 1955 World Series.

A replica of the Wiesenthal exhibit is on display at Dodger Stadium and will be traveling to baseball parks nationwide in coming months. The center is holding a celebration on Sunday night to kick off its exhibit, with Robinson’s wife, Rachel, and other dignitaries, including former Brooklyn Dodger pitcher and Robinson friend Don Newcombe.

Newcombe has spent a lot of time pondering Robinson’s legacy and says Robinson would probably have characteristically grumbled about the state of African Americans in baseball 50 years after his daring entrance into the big leagues.

“Jackie wanted progress,” Newcombe said at the Dodgers’ opening day Tuesday. “He didn’t want either himself or the game of baseball to sit still. I don’t think he would have liked what he saw today.”