Rachel Robinson: Still spreading the legacy

She has headed countless projects in her late husband's name.

Posted: April 11, 2007

Fourth of eight parts

Rachel Robinson knew how to smile through her fear.

Throughout their 27 years of marriage, Jackie Robinson's wife had managed to publicly mask her concerns. As courageously as her pioneering husband, she silently had endured the death threats, the taunts, the provocations, the stinging innuendo.

"After Branch Rickey, she is the most important supporting player in the Jackie Robinson story," said Jonathan Eig, author of Opening Day, an account of Robinson's tumultuous first big-league season. "They're newlyweds with only each other to turn to for support. She was his rock."

But on this day, Oct. 15, 1972, during a ceremony prior to Game 2 of the World Series at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium, her worry was visible as she gazed out onto the patch of sun-soaked AstroTurf where, surrounded by baseball dignitaries, her 53-year-old husband stood.

The man who 25 years earlier had broken baseball's color barrier was nearly blind, his eyes clouded by diabetes. That disease and a serious heart condition had slowed his always energetic gait to a wary shuffle. There was a hollowness in his high-pitched voice. And his hair had turned white, as white as the crisp white shirt that had first attracted 17-year-old Rachel Annetta Isum to him.

In the years between their initial encounter on the campus of UCLA and this ceremony honoring her husband's groundbreaking accomplishment, Rachel Robinson had been transformed no less than baseball.

The pretty but painfully shy 17-year-old from Northern California had found a cause when she found a spouse. In addition to being a mother of three - Jackie Jr., Sharon and David - an active baseball wife, and a professional woman with a distinguished career as a psychiatric nurse, Rachel Robinson had become committed to the virtues Jackie Robinson had come to symbolize. She had learned, the hard way perhaps, about the value of struggling toward a higher aim.

"If you have an overriding goal," she would say, "there are times when you must transcend the obstacles that are being put in your way. Rise above them."

Her commitment would not stop nine days later, when, on Oct. 24, 1972, Jack Robinson - she always called him "Jack," his given name - died of a massive heart attack in their Connecticut home at 53.

Now, 60 years after Robinson's historic debut, Rachel Robinson remains the keeper of the flame. She is a medium of sorts, constantly summoning up her husband's spirit for new generations of Americans to behold. Her "overriding goal" for the 35 years she has lived without him has been to honor that legacy, to preach, practice and encourage its message of fortitude, character and opportunity.

"When that [Robinson's death] happened," Eig said, "she had to decide whether to pursue her nursing career or to carry on with his legacy."

Her decision came quickly - and forcefully.

Just months after his premature death, she would start the Jackie Robinson Development Corp., an organization that provides housing for low- and middle-income families in New York. A year later, she would found the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the New York-based organization that provides mentoring and dozens of annual scholarships to outstanding African American and Hispanic students.

She has shepherded countless other projects dedicated to the cause, including a planned new movie on Robinson's life that Robert Redford is producing and in which he will play Rickey, the Dodgers executive who integrated the game in 1947.

And her pet cause at the moment is the new Jackie Robinson Museum, which is planned for lower Manhattan and which also will serve as the foundation's home.

"I want young people not just to know who Jackie Robinson was and what his achievements were," she told a Dodger Stadium crowd in 2005, "but I'd love young people to want to emulate him, think about him, and be inspired by him."

She is 84 now, yet hardly a day goes by when she is not doing just that, invoking or promoting the memory of her late husband, who in becoming the first black major leaguer in the 20th century became so much more.

"One thing that you learn from Rachel Robinson," said Thomas Bennett, a management trainee with the Vanguard Group in Malvern and an alumnus of the Robinson Foundation, "is a deep concern for those who are coming behind you. Because of her, I know that I will stay involved with the foundation as long as there is air in my lungs."

Robinson, as ex-National League president Len Coleman, a foundation board member and close friend, recalled, is opinionated and very protective of the Robinson image.

"In 1997, when I came up with the idea to retire Jackie's No. 42 in every ballpark, the one person that was hardest to convince was Rachel," Coleman said. "She felt that young black ballplayers ought to be able to aspire to wear his number. We argued for quite some time, but finally she just said, 'Oh, go ahead.' "

She spends considerable time, of course, recounting the tribulations she and her new husband endured in those early years of his baseball career. Though they'd met in 1940, World War II intervened. They weren't married until Jan. 10, 1946, just two weeks before they were to depart for their first spring training.

Those Dodgers, not surprisingly, remain her favorite team, a fact that became apparent two summers ago as she and Coleman walked through a Saratoga Race Course shedrow.

"She'd become friendly with trainer Nick Zito," Coleman said. "And one of Nick's horses at the time was Bellamy Road, who was owned by George Steinbrenner. As we passed his stall, the horse stuck his head out and nipped Rachel.

"She said, 'Fifty years later, and the Yankees are still trying to bite me.' "

Robinson's commitment remains an all-consuming one. Even on the day when this nation stood still in grief and fear, she was moving toward her goal.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, she and Dorothy Reese, the widow of Jackie Robinson's teammate and friend Pee Wee Reese, were in New York's City Hall. They were there to choose one of five bronze sculptures commemorating the now-famous occasion when, in an effort to quell the uproar about baseball's integration, the Kentucky-born Reese laid an arm around Robinson's shoulder.

They heard the first airplane hit the World Trade Center tower just blocks away, and concerned city officials began to move them from place to place, seeking a secure shelter for these two baseball widows.

"Finally, she had had enough," Coleman recalled. "She excused herself and, even though she was almost 80 at the time, walked by herself all the way back to her apartment on the Upper East Side."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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