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World & Nation

N.Y.'s Jackie Robinson Museum, which has a high-minded mission, marks groundbreaking

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People stroll the sidewalk outside the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.
(Barbara Demick / Los Angeles Times)

Since 2008, when an empty gallery in lower Manhattan lined its windows with striking sky-blue posters advertising the Jackie Robinson Museum, pedestrians have been trying to get in and callers have been pestering the switchboard for information about when the museum would open.

After a decade-long struggle to raise the funds, that day draws nearer. The museum dedicated to the late baseball giant who broke the color barrier of Major League Baseball celebrated its groundbreaking Thursday with, fingers crossed, an opening anticipated in 2019.

“We know from the throngs of people wanting to visit, from the phone calls and all the pedestrians, that the demand is there,’’ said Della Britton Baeza, president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Of all the hundreds of museums in New York City, she says, “This one will be the only museum focused on civil rights.”

Robinson, who died of a heart attack in 1972, is best known for being the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Moses Fleetwood Walker played for one year 63 years earlier.

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Robinson made his debut April 15, 1947, playing first base for the then-Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field in “what was literally the greatest moment in the history of baseball,’’ as Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said at Thursday’s ceremony.

“Jackie took our game beyond sport and made it part of a movement that began the process of change in America,” said Manfred.

For breaking the modern color barrier, Robinson endured racist taunts and physical abuse. Angry fans and rival players sometimes spat at him and threw bottles, watermelons and, in one case, a black cat. Nonetheless, he persevered and was named rookie of the year in 1947 and the National League’s most valuable player two years later.

Jackie Robinson Museum employees are framed by a giant poster of legendary baseball player at a grou
Jackie Robinson Museum employees are framed by a giant poster of legendary baseball player at a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

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After his retirement as a player in 1957, Robinson became a vice president of Chock Full o’ Nuts Coffee, breaking another color barrier in corporate America, and co-founded a bank in Harlem to rejuvenate the community.

The museum aspires to be about much more than baseball — using Robinson’s life to teach about bullying and racism and about perseverance.

“We will use him to understand character and character development and why it is important to overcome obstacles in your life,” said Sharon Robinson, 67, his daughter, an education consultant, midwife and author. “We could talk about when he was being spiked at third base, how he was being bullied, who was the bully and how he had to function under pressure.”

Robinson said she remembered her father less as an athlete than as a civil rights activist who, over time, brought “all of us into what we called the family mission.”

The museum was the dream of Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who was an assistant professor of nursing at Yale. Now 94, she set up the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973 to help minority students excel in higher education.

The foundation rented the 18,500-square-foot space for the museum in 2007 and put up the window displays advertising the opening the following year. But the downturn in the economy and the competition for donations from other museums stalled the project over the past decade.

The foundation said it has raised $25 million of an estimated budget of $42 million — yes, the figure was chosen because Robinson wore No. 42 for the Dodgers. Many small donations have arrived in the form of checks made out for $42, while corporate donors and sports teams have been more generous. The Dodgers gave $1.25 million, according to Britton Baeza.

The museum is being designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which also did the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

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Jackie Robinson’s legacy is already celebrated by many schools, streets and stadiums and awards in his name. Major League Baseball now marks Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, the anniversary of his debut. The newest of many Jackie Robinson statues — this one showing him stealing home — was unveiled earlier this month at Dodger Stadium.

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Twitter: @BarbaraDemick


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