Early this year in its airy, wood-floored main space in downtown Manhattan, the Jackie Robinson Foundation held a fund-raising event commemorating what would have been the Hall of Famer's 93rd birthday. The evening also honored former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who posthumously received the foundation's annual Chairman Award for having "carried on the tradition of Jackie Robinson." Although the Yankees were no friend to Robinson during his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers—the Yanks heckled him profoundly while beating Brooklyn in five of six World Series—Steinbrenner had, over a 37-year ownership reign, which began in 1973, been generous in charity and loyal to baseball people in need. The former Yankee Darryl Strawberry, an African-American slugger whose career was derailed by drug use, was on hand to express gratitude to the Boss for "sticking by me and pulling me up when no one else would."
This is an article from the April 16, 2012 issue
Several ex-players attended the event, including Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, as well as foundation chair and former National League president Len Coleman. But the light in the room came from somewhere else: a woman in a black pantsuit, with shoulder-length gray hair and dangling earrings. She mingled unhurriedly, occasionally dispensing hugs to those she knew. Other guests kept looking toward her, angling to get close, to eavesdrop on her banter, to shake her hand, to take in her glow. She needed no name tag. This was Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. To observe her for any length of time and then to learn that she will soon turn 90 is akin to learning that yes, in fact, cows can fly. She looks 68.
About an hour into the evening, Morgan took to a lectern to emcee a short program. He noted that it has been 65 years since Jackie Robinson crossed the major league color line—on April 15, Major League Baseball will celebrate the anniversary of his first game with the Dodgers—and 50 years since Robinson was inducted into the Hall. Strawberry took a turn at the mike, as did Coleman and David Robinson, one of Jackie and Rachel's three children. Then Morgan stepped to the lectern again. "Now," he said, "I have to formally introduce someone who is here tonight. You know that England has its queen, well ... we have ours. The queen mother— Rachel Robinson."
SHE HAS been without Jackie for nearly 40 years, eight years longer than she knew him. In that time she has at once embraced the role of a great man's widow, protected and carried on his legacy, and built her own identity, leading a pointed second life centered on her work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Her stature in and outside of baseball—last month Rachel was invited to the White House by a fifth president, for a small, private gathering with Barack Obama—stems from the significance of her achievements and from a fine blend of diplomacy and moral conviction. They're the same traits that defined her when she was standing close by Jackie, inspiring and often guiding him over their 32 years of courtship and marriage.
It was Rachel who, upon landing in New Orleans in 1946 en route to Jackie's first spring training—at age 23 and on her first trip to the Jim Crow South after growing up outside Los Angeles—went straight to an airport water fountain marked WHITES ONLY and took a drink. Then she walked into the WHITES ONLY ladies' room. That year a reporter, profiling the Robinsons as Jackie played for the otherwise all-white Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league affiliate, compared Rachel with Eleanor Roosevelt. Friends tell the story of how, in the early 1970s, when Rachel was working as a psychiatric nurse and teaching at Yale, the university tried to recruit her to join its board. Rachel declined. "Not unless you hire another black or another woman," she said. "You won't get a twofer from me."
Rachel established the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973, less than a year after her husband died, at 53, of a heart attack. His death came 16 months after Jackie Jr., only 24 and the eldest of the Robinsons' children, was killed in a one-car crash. "My life, our family's life was plunged into grief," Rachel said from her corner office in New York City last month. "The foundation grew out of my mourning and my wish to hold on to [Jackie's] legacy, to continue our journey."
She laid the groundwork at the kitchen table of her home in Stamford, Conn., on the sprawling property where she and Jackie moved the family in 1954. Along with Rachel, the kitchen group that met in '73 included civil rights lawyer Franklin Williams, businessman Warren Jackson and Marty Edelman, who had been Jackie's attorney. "The goal was to do something beyond a one-time event or monument," says Edelman, who remains on the foundation's board. "It needed to be something that could sustain itself and have a lasting impact."
Rachel, who graduated cum laude from UCLA with a degree in nursing, steered the mission to education. The group decided to establish a scholarship program that would not only give money for minority students to attend college but also maintain a hands-on mentoring and leadership training program to help students through school once they got there. "The foundation today," Edelman says, "is an outgrowth of the things we—and by we I really mean Rachel—were saying at that kitchen table."
The Jackie Robinson Foundation awarded its first scholarship to Stamford high school student Debora Young. "Rachel was right on top of me, being there to help, but getting tough to make sure I did what I had to do," says Young, who went to Boston College and then into a career in corporate public relations. "Over the years we started calling her Mother Rachel."
Four decades later the foundation has provided for more than 1,400 students, including the 220 Jackie Robinson scholars currently in school. Each receives $7,500 per year in aid, as well as the mentoring. The foundation gets upwards of 3,500 applications a year and accepts between 50 and 70. Those selected are minority students, many from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds and many the first in their family to attend college. This year's seniors include a panorama of majors: neurobiology at Harvard, film at Occidental, nuclear engineering at Texas A&M, economics at Yale. Close to 100 companies provide sponsorship, among them Major League Baseball and several individual teams. The most astonishing number is this: The foundation reports a graduation rate of more than 97%.
"One big reason for that is the mentoring and the way the foundation supports you," says Reginald Livingston, who won a JRF scholarship in 1992, was a finance major at Georgetown and is now a commercial Realtor in New York City. "In my years we went to Rachel's house and sat with her and other members of the board. They listened to us, advised us, challenged us. The foundation opens you up to possibilities.
"But there's another reason why so many of us do well in school. When you apply for a scholarship you make it your business to learn about Jackie Robinson. That leads you to learn about Rachel and the family. You understand what that family went through. Suddenly your problems in freshman econ don't seem as daunting."
Coleman, who has chaired the foundation since 1996, adds this, "Every kid in this program has the chance to meet and interact with Rachel. That may seem like a small piece but it is not. They become part of the family. And then what are they going to do? No one wants to let down Rachel Robinson."
Norman Siegel, a career civil rights lawyer who has been involved with the foundation since 1976, recalls how through the 1980s and '90s he often pushed to have the organization take on political and civil rights issues. Once he wanted to sue Major League Baseball for its lack of minority representation in the front offices. Siegel believed he had a strong case and the board was behind him. Rachel wasn't having it. "All along I've wanted us to be focused—educating these young people to make a difference," she says. "I felt if we did one thing really well instead of spreading ourselves thin, that was our best chance at social change."
Since 2004 the foundation, with its full-time 20-person staff and scores of volunteers, has been led by president and CEO Della Britton Baeza. But Rachel comes regularly to the office, approves major decisions, answers letters, goes on fund-raising calls. Books and photographs surround her workspace. Here are Rachel and Jackie on their wedding day; here's Rachel in the stands for Jackie's historic debut at Ebbets Field, infant Jackie Jr. bundled up on her lap; here's Jackie, several times, sliding into home. You can find on the shelves replicas of some of the hate mail and death threats that Jackie received and also see pictures of him surrounded by throngs of white fans seeking his autograph. Now here's the family together, the three children young; here's Jackie picketing on behalf of the NAACP in the 1960s; here are Jackie and Rachel with Martin Luther King Jr.
Rachel's favorite of the wall photographs shows her and Jackie in the late '60s at one of the Afternoon of Jazz fund-raising concerts the Robinsons held each June on the lawn of their Connecticut home. (Artists such as Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie performed, and the first profits went for bail money to free jailed civil rights protesters.) The Robinsons are lying eyes half closed, smiling, blissful in one another's arms. Rachel continues to protect Jackie, determining how his name and likeness is used. It's why you've never seen an official Jackie Robinson bobblehead doll—despite suggestions by baseball and the Dodgers that they produce one. "If there's one thing that man always had, it was dignity," Rachel said last month. Then, smiling and jiggling her head in bobblehead fashion, she added, "I could not see Jack's head bouncing around like this."
Rachel is determined that Jackie not be seen as a martyr, that for all the difficulty of his journey, his was finally a life of fortune, happiness and success. It's a message she hopes writer-director Brian Helgeland has absorbed for his film on Robinson, 42, set for a 2013 release. (It will star Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, Nicole Beharie as Rachel, Harrison Ford as Dodgers G.M. Branch Rickey.) Rachel is an active consultant on the script. "She does what she does when I give her a book," says Jackie and Rachel's daughter, Sharon, 62, the author of a candid family memoir as well as several children's books. "She makes a big pile of notes. She calls them 'suggestions.' " Rachel's most ambitious idea in recent years has been the Jackie Robinson Museum, set to be located next to the foundation. The museum will be dedicated not only to his life but also, per Rachel's instruction, to the history of African-Americans. "Not just a place of archives, but one where people can convene, a destination," she says. "We'll have areas where you can run conferences or have small group meetings. It should be a living tribute. There's a lot to do to get this going but I plan to be there when we open."
For her 75th birthday, in 1997, Rachel and about a dozen family members—she has 12 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren—climbed to 10,000 feet on Mount Kilimanjaro. Her son David lives in Tanzania, where he runs a coffee co-op not far from the base of the mountain, and Rachel still visits once or twice a year. She says she plans to do another climb in honor of her 90th in July and has been recruiting family and friends to come. "I can't see her actually doing that at this stage," says Sharon. "Of course she has surprised me before...."
In December 2010, Rachel fell and broke her hip. She refused to do her walker-aided rehab in public, keeping near her apartment. "If we had to go out in the wheelchair she put on a scarf and sunglasses. She didn't want anyone to see her," says Sharon. Two months after the fall Sharon coaxed Rachel to go to a restaurant in Connecticut. Sharon parked and went to the back of the car to get the wheelchair. "There was a walk and then a long ramp going up to the front door," Sharon recalls. "But she refused the chair. She hadn't walked anywhere yet. I said. 'Come on, Mom, there's no way you can walk.' She looked at me and said, 'I'm walking.' And she did."
"Two things she does not like," says Edelman, whom Rachel describes as her best friend. "She hates arrogance in anyone. And she can't stand weakness." Edelman recalls noticing, a decade ago or so, that Rachel intently watched whenever an older person walked by with a stooped gait: "I asked what she was doing, and she said she wanted to make sure she never walked that way. She said, 'It gives them a bad attitude. You've got to keep your back straight.' "
Last month the current Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars came to Manhattan for a four-day mentoring and leadership conference. Of all the qualities needed to win a Jackie Robinson scholarship—high academic achievement, financial need, the potential to lead—the most important is a commitment to give back to the community, and several students were awarded grants for programs they have developed. Troy White, a marketing major at Northern Illinois University, is using his grant money for a baseball academy in inner-city Chicago. A young woman named Ashley Williams, who was raised in foster homes, started a guardian program at UCLA that looks over foster youths. Olevia Mitchell, a junior at Syracuse, created the Neighborhood Action Council, which combats gang activity and truancy in Inglewood, Calif., where she's from.
The events of 1947 changed not just the national pastime but also national perceptions and beliefs, paving the way to the marches and moral stands that began at last to lift America out of its racial ignominy. That cool afternoon at Ebbets Field 65 years ago remains the finest hour in the 142 years of baseball history. Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. said years later, was "a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."
During his career, and then in his postbaseball life at the front lines of the civil rights struggle, Robinson became a kind of American knight. Rachel was there then, and she is here now, never having given up the fight. At the JRF conference last month, in a room filled with some 400 scholars and alumni, none of whom had been born before Jackie Robinson died, Rachel was again introduced from a dais. The young people, just like the men and women of other generations who had applauded two months before, rose and cheered, whooped and stomped, rattled their chairs. Even when Rachel, beaming but demure, bade them to stop, they would not. They kept on with the noise, a crowd of students, all of them believing they have someplace to go, thanking her, the queen mother, for what she has done.