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Pasadena park caught between Jackie and Mack Robinson

In the midday sun, it will be something magnificent. The emerald turf will glimmer; the football field will seem to stretch for miles; the twin basketball courts will beckon to children set free from school.

At dusk, however, is when the park will truly shine. That’s when a switch will be flipped and two first-class baseball diamonds will be bathed in light -- a fitting tribute to a Pasadena boy who became a legend.

This is Jackie Robinson’s old neighborhood, and this seven-acre park a decade in the making is envisioned to be the athlete’s ultimate memorial: a $24-million sports complex on Fair Oaks Avenue.

But now a debate over the name of the park has awakened the city’s delicate relationship with the memory of a man who became the first black baseball player in the major leagues and his older brother, an Olympian who gained only modest fame. While Matthew “Mack” Robinson put down roots and became a fixture in Pasadena, Jackie became estranged from his hometown and returned only for brief family visits.

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Civic leaders have always sought to honor both brothers equally. When Pasadena City College, which both brothers attended, renovated its stadium in 1999, it was dedicated as Robinson Stadium. Bronze busts of the brothers across from City Hall are known as the Robinson Memorial. And less than a mile from the Jackie Robinson Community Center on Fair Oaks is the Mack Robinson U.S. Post Office.

So it has stirred deep feelings that some community leaders have suggested erasing the name Robinson Park and renaming the upgraded sports complex Jackie Robinson Park.

Lucrative name

The thought among some is that with fundraising for the sports park still $13 million shy of the goal and plans for replacing the recreation building and swimming pool on hold, naming the complex for one of America’s most cherished athletes could be lucrative.

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“Jackie’s name is known world round, even in Asia,” said Greg Mosley, chairman of the park’s Master Plan Committee. “We don’t have the intention to leave out Mack; it’s just that Jackie was in the forefront.”

A hybrid moniker such as Jackie and Mack Robinson Park would still fail to do the trick, Mosley said. “There’s so much explaining you have to do with Mack’s name.”

Ishmael Trone, who chairs a committee that advises the City Council on area redevelopment, said the suggestion of a name change began when community members asked that the park be specifically named for Jackie to underscore the city’s direct lineage to the legendary ballplayer.

Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel, has given permission to rename the park after her late husband, a blessing that Mosley says the city was denied decades ago because of the presence of a mortuary on the property at the time. If the change is approved, efforts would be made to name a nearby street after Mack Robinson.

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Others say naming the complex for Jackie would be a snub to the late Mack Robinson, a 200-meter silver medalist who finished a kick behind Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Mack Robinson ended up settling back in the community, building a house in northwest Pasadena and volunteering with youth groups.

“Jackie’s accomplishments supersede Mack’s on a global scale,” Councilman Chris Holden said, “but Mack was the blue-collar representative. He was out there toiling away and making a significant impact but in a less glamorous way.”

Mack died in 2000, but his wife, Delano, still lives in the home where they raised their six children. “He loved this city, and he was comfortable here,” she said. “He was always concerned about the youth and seeing a lot of young men standing on the corner. He went to City Hall all the time and expressed his concern.”

The 76-year-old widow attended the official groundbreaking for the park in May and said she hopes her husband is included in the park name, but would be supportive of whatever decision is made.

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Overshadowed

Professor Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University, who wrote a 1997 biography on Jackie Robinson, said the athlete’s older brother lived his life in the shadow of an icon.

“Mack was a very big man at Pasadena Junior College, and then along came Jackie, who went on to UCLA, where he really eclipsed his brother,” Rampersad said.

“That’s really where the paths diverged. Jackie just moved in a different sway, in a different circle. Mack’s reputation survived largely because of his connection to Jackie, but what Mack accomplished is really quite significant. He too achieved fame and might have gone on to bigger and better things if the times had been different.”

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The brothers’ feelings about their hometown also differed, Rampersad said. They were raised in Pasadena with three siblings at a time when black children were permitted to swim in the local pool just once a week -- after which the water was drained and replaced.

“Jackie did look back on Pasadena with a certain amount of, not bitterness, but a mix of conflicted emotions. It was home, but other places helped him more,” Rampersad said.

In addition to stadiums, schools and fields, there are plenty of parks named for Jackie Robinson. Chicago has one. So does Daytona Beach, Fla. New York boasts two, and Stamford, Conn., where Robinson eventually settled until his death in 1972, has one with a 7-foot statue of the former Brooklyn Dodger. Even Littlerock, Calif., a tiny town in the Antelope Valley, has a Jackie Robinson Park.

Some Pasadena residents thought they had one, too.

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“We always called it Jackie Robinson Park,” said Laurence Todd, 42, who was born and raised in Pasadena. Situated in what has long been a predominantly black neighborhood, the park has always served as a haven for youth, Todd said. Making the name official, he believes, would elevate the park’s stature and turn it into the landmark it deserves to be.

“I would wake up in the summers and get there about 7 a.m. and be there until 9 at night,” he said. “I can recall the first day the pool opened. There were literally dozens of black kids excited to swim. That park really became a staple for a lot of us at that time. Changing the name is a no-brainer. We’re finally going to give it the name it was supposed to have all along.”

Other long-time residents think altering the name means tampering with history.

“Robinson Park is supposed to represent the entire Robinson family,” said Gary Moody, 58. “The local lore here in Pasadena was more directed toward Mack because we could see, touch and feel him. Mack helped integrate the city pool and fought racism here. Being the oldest, he stayed home to fight the good fight community-wise. What Jackie did for the world, Mack did for Pasadena.”

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A community meeting to further discuss the issue is scheduled for Oct. 20 at the Jackie Robinson Community Center. Organizers are quick to point out that a name change is not worth potential funding if it’s met with outrage.

What’s most important, they say, is for the next generation to have a place to sprint and slide and kick and catch -- the kind of park young Jackie and Mack Robinson never had.

--

corina.knoll@latimes.com

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