The Enduring Legacy Of Jackie Robinson

The widow of the man who broke pro-baseball's color barrier works to perpetuate his ideals

ROCK-SOLID marriage can be a bulwark to anyone in the white-hot glare of public life. It certainly was for Jackie Robinson, baseball's pioneering black player. This comes through clearly in speaking with Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow.

College sweethearts at the University of California, Los Angeles, they married in 1946 after a five-year engagement, the year before the Brooklyn Dodgers made Jackie the first black player in modern major-league history.

``When couples are put under that kind of pressure,'' she says, `it can push you apart and create a tension between you. For Jack and me, it was just the reverse. We formed a kind of partnership: s us.' It wasn't just him and it wasn't just me. There was nothing coming between us.

Rachel Robinson shared this and other insights in two recent Monitor interviews, one via phone from New York and the other during a visit to Boston, where she was honored by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

Mrs. Robinson, who is presently writing a book, collected an award for her work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she established in 1973, one year after her husband's passing. ``I wanted a vehicle to perpetuate his memory, his name, and his spir she says. Family members and friends formed a board, and in 1977 the foundation began a college scholarship program that targets minority youngsters.

I chose education because I feel and Jack felt ... that education was the key to any kind of productive life,'' she says.

These are not sports scholarships, she says, and the competition is intense only 31 of 12,000 applicants were selected last year, bringing the current number of scholarship recipients in school to 150. One star alumnus is Elaine Steward, assistant general manager of the Boston Red Sox. (See related story, right.)

Robinson, a foundation volunteer, is an achiever in her own right. A nursing major in college, she returned to that field after her husband's retirement from baseball in 1956. Upon earning a master's degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University, she turned to teaching at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and Yale University. She also was director of the Connecticut Mental Health Center.

Though born and raised in Los Angeles, she has lived in New York and Connecticut ever since baseball brought the Robinsons east. For many years she helped to run a company started by Jackie that built and managed lower-income housing developments in the New York metropolitan area.

Her sporting loyalties moved west with her husband's old team. ``I'm still a Dodger fan and not like all those Brooklynites who hate them,'' she says with a laugh.

Since the PBS documentary ``Baseball'' aired in October, Robinson has received a flood of mail from viewers. ``I was very pleased with the way Ken Burns conceptualized Jack's place in history,'' she says.

With the 50th anniversary of baseball's on-field integration approaching in 1997, many might have assumed that Mr. Burns would do a cinematic version of the Jackie Robinson story. In fact, black filmmaker Spike Lee will do the honors.

Rachel Robinson says her husband would not be pleased with the state of baseball integration today. ``He' d be actively disappointed,'' she says. She cites his last public appearance: At the 1972 World Series he expressed a desire to ``look down the third-base line and see a black manager.'' Some have served in this and other high-ranking capacities since then. Still, his wife says, Robinson would be looking for further signs of progress. He wanted an open system that would allow opportunities at all levels of people who are qualified. Just integrating the players was not the end result for him.''

In the PBS series, some people described her spouse as an angry person, she says. That's a misconception, in her view. As an athlete, he was competitive to the max, she says. At home, though, he was ``very tender, very loving, very quiet. He was an easy person to live with. I also felt very protective of him and tried to create a home that was a haven for him.''

She attended almost all home games and drove home with him. ``We did a lot of debriefing and getting things out this way,'' she says. ``Since I had been there, he didn't have to tell me what happened. That helped a lot in getting him ready to re-enter the house without going over things [encountered at the ballpark].''

Although her children haven't pursued sports, she's proud of their accomplishments. Daughter Sharon is a professor who teaches midwifery at Yale University and son David runs a coffee farm in Tanzania. s doing a tremendous job against terrible odds in uplifting the people of his village,'' Robinson says.

Despite the struggles she and her husband encountered, she sees their joint experience as ``a triumphant life with much joy. There's an exhilaration that comes with living through something. I think one of the reasons that Jack didn't want to give up is that the exhilaration kept coming back. That keeps you moving forward. That keeps you energized.''

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