So influential was Jackie Robinson that a single phone call from him to Tommy Davis changed the course of Davis’ life.
Davis, who won batting titles with the Dodgers in 1962 and ’63, was among the guest speakers Thursday at the club’s first Jackie Robinson Legacy Day, which fell on what would’ve been the late Robinson’s 89th birthday and the eve of Black History Month.
Davis shared his stories about Robinson at Dodger Stadium with more than 200 local elementary and middle school students.
Davis spoke of how Robinson not only paved the way for him and other African Americans to play in the major leagues, but also steered him to the Dodgers.
Davis recounted how as a high school senior in Brooklyn, he was days away from signing with the New York Yankees when he received a call from Robinson.
Davis recalled turning to his mother with the phone still pressed to his ear and saying, “Jackie Robinson’s on the phone! Jackie Robinson’s on the phone! Jackie Robinson’s on the phone!”
Said Davis: “He was trying to tell me of the advantages of playing for the Dodgers. I didn’t hear and I didn’t care.”
Two days later, he signed with the Dodgers.
The event Thursday was the idea of Charles Steinberg, the Dodgers’ recently hired executive of marketing and public relations. Steinberg was working for the San Diego Padres in 1997 when baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier.
Steinberg said that on the evening news, he saw an 11-year-old girl being asked if she knew anything about Robinson.
The response, Steinberg said, was along the lines of, “I’ve heard of her, but I don’t know exactly what she did.”
Steinberg said, “It was a concern to me that his name was dying.”
So in 2003, Steinberg, then employed by the Boston Red Sox, organized a tribute to Robinson at Fenway Park and invited local students. The Red Sox held their sixth such event Thursday.
Steinberg said he felt especially compelled to replicate the event in Los Angeles because Robinson grew up in Pasadena and went to UCLA.
Whereas the Red Sox had former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell as a scheduled speaker -- he was delayed on his way to Boston and had to speak to students on a conference call -- the Dodgers had Davis, former pitcher Don Newcombe, former outfielder Lou Johnson, former manager Tom Lasorda, team owner Jamie McCourt and Robinson’s niece and grandson.
Newcombe told the students of how Martin Luther King Jr. visited his house for dinner in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated.
Of the inroads that Newcombe, Robinson and Roy Campanella made in baseball, Newcombe said King told him, “You’ll never know how easy you made it for me to do my job with what you did on the baseball field.”
Steinberg said his wish was for every child to remember at least one thing they learned about Robinson that day for the rest of his or her life.
Rasheda Akter, an eighth grader from the Jackie Robinson Academy in Long Beach, said she would. “This is a memorable day,” Akter said. “It’s not every day that you get to come to the stadium.”