Phils to give Robinson's breakthrough its due

Posted: April 09, 2007

When it came to integration in the 1940s and 1950s, the Phillies were cellar-dwellers - the last of the National League's eight teams to use a black player.

Now, they're seemingly trying to make up for lost time.

Not only is the team planning an extensive celebration of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier, the team continues its efforts to cultivate the game's popularity among African Americans in order to increase the fan base and lure talented black athletes back to the national pastime.

For this is an era when some major-league teams find their rosters all but devoid of African American players. The Phillies? The team almost has an embarrassment of riches, counting 2006 National League MVP Ryan Howard, all-star shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and reliever Tom Gordon among its front-line players.

All three are marketed by the team. And Howard and Rollins, both homegrown products, are integral parts of the team's vaunted youthful lineup.

Off the field, the Phils boast one of the game's marquee urban youth programs, last year sponsoring more than 7,500 children throughout the Philadelphia area in Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) leagues.

When the Phillies' branch of baseball's RBI initiative started in 1989, just 200 children participated in what was then a lone neighborhood Puerto Rican Rookie League.

On Sunday, RBI participants will help the Phillies mark the April 15, 1947, debut of Robinson before an afternoon game against the Houston Astros at Citizens Bank Park.

"The club is taking the extra step because it's the right thing to do," said Gene Dias, the Phillies' community relations director. "[Commissioner] Bud Selig has said that Jackie Robinson breaking the barrier was the greatest moment in baseball history, and I agree."

Before Sunday's game, the Phils will introduce four members of the Philadelphia Stars, who faced Robinson when he played in the Negro leagues. Local Jackie Robinson scholarship winners will be honored (Penn's Stefon Burns, Temple's Deidre Little, and high school student Matt Howard, from the Phillies' RBI leagues), along with Jim Ellis, the coach who produced nationally ranked black swimmers and is the subject of the movie Pride. Donna Allie, an African American single mother who started a cleaning company that grew to more than 260 workers, also will be honored.

A video tribute to Robinson will be shown before the game, and a silent auction near the first-base gate plaza will raise money for the Robinson Scholarship Fund. Some of the Tuskegee Airmen - the first African American U.S. military pilots - will serve as honor guards during the national anthem, and Rollins will wear No. 42 - Robinson's number - during the game. The bases will have a special Robinson logo on them that day.

In addition, the Phils will honor the Anderson Monarchs, a Phillies inner-city team of all-stars who as 11-year-olds in 1997 made a 10-city barnstorming tour in a refurbished 1947 bus to commemorate Robinson's 50-year anniversary.

"We're celebrating what Jackie Robinson did. Not only the impact it had on baseball, but how it opened the eyes of the whole country and showed we can live together and do things together," Dias said. "And this was way before the civil-rights movement."

Dias didn't minimize the Phillies' slowness to sign black players. In 1957 - 10 years after Robinson broke the barrier - John Kennedy became the first black Phillie.

"But regardless of the past history, we're celebrating what [Robinson] did," Dias said. "That's why the Phillies are so proud to recognize the day the way we do."

Fans who attend the game will receive a Robinson biographical handout from Major League Baseball and a schedule magnet with a Jackie Robinson Day logo. The Phils' after-school program, called Phillies Phundamentals, is also incorporating Robinson information into its lessons for area schoolchildren this year.

The four members of the Philadelphia Stars who will be honored Sunday are second baseman Mahlon Duckett, catcher Stanley Glenn, pitcher Harold Gould, and catcher Bill Cash.

"Jackie brought the Negro-league game to the majors - get on base and then steal a base," said Cash, 88, who lives in Elkins Park.

Cash recalls the days when the Phillies weren't so welcoming, saying Robinson told him he "caught more hell in Philadelphia than any other city."

So, to the surviving Stars, what occurs Sunday is more than just ceremony.

"It means a lot to me," said Duckett, 84. "He was a great man who went though a lot, and he should have his day. He took a lot of harassment - not only from the players, but the fans, especially in the Southern states - and went though a lot of stress."

Duckett said he was signed by the New York Giants' organization in 1951 and was about to go to spring training, but rheumatic fever ended his playing career. He then worked for the post office for nearly 30 years. But, he said, other players, though healthy, were still excluded from the majors even after '47.

"They would sign only a few each year, and by the time they started taking a lot of ball players, like they should, a lot of the guys [he played with] were in their 30s, and teams were looking for younger players," Duckett said.

By 1952 - five years after Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers - only six of the 16 major-league teams had a black player.

Dias said the Phillies don't have any celebration plans for April 22, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's becoming the club's first black player in 1957. Kennedy, a shortstop and third baseman who played in just five games with the Phillies, died of heart failure in 1998 at age 71.


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at 215-854-5181 or scarchidi@phillynews.com.

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