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Baseball honors Jackie's legacy
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04/15/2004  9:17 PM ET
Baseball honors Jackie's legacy
Robinson honored at New York's Shea Stadium
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Rachel Robinson speaks during a ceremony honoring her late husband at Shea Stadium Thursday. (Frank Franklin II/AP)
• Robinson Day ceremony at Shea  56K | 350K
• Selig speaks at Shea  56K | 350K
• National tribute  56K | 350K

NEW YORK -- Reflecting vividly on that day 57 years and about a dozen miles away, Rachel Robinson smiled through the memories.

"My big concern that morning was, how do I get to Brooklyn (from the hotel)? It was a hoary morning getting to the park," she said. "My five-month-old baby was dressed in California clothes, and he was chilled.

"But Ruth Campanella's mom had a fur coat and she draped it over him, and I went to warm up his bottle, then we were all right."

Rachel Robinson shrugged lightly. "Maybe that was my way of defending against the anxiety of Jackie playing -- with maternal things."

The day was April 15, 1947. The place, Ebbets Field. The moment, profoundly seminal, for a sport and for a nation.

The day Jackie Robinson walked through a barred door with dignity and talent, and held it open for generations to follow.

Jackie Robinson Day
Jackie Robinson Day
April 15, 2004
• Ceremony at Shea Stadium:
56K | 350K
• Commissioner Selig's comments: 56K | 350K
• MLB.com's Billy Sample at Shea: 56K | 350K
• Presentation at Jackie Robinson Field: 56K | 350K
• MLB.com looks at his life and impact: 56K | 350K
A day that has now inspired Major League Baseball's first national holiday.

Thursday's first celebration of Jackie Robinson Day occurred in 13 ballparks coast-to-coast, but the focus was on Shea Stadium, in the historical shadow of Flatbush.

The setting was appropriate in another haunting way. In Jackie Robinson's debut, the Dodgers beat the then-Boston Braves, 5-3.

"The thing that always impressed me so much was that he was able to deal with all that he had to deal with and still was able to be a great baseball player," said Terry Pendleton, the 1991 National League MVP and batting coach of today's Braves. "Just to endure that is a whole different world than we experienced when I was playing."

"He was a great player, and breaking the color barrier was huge," said Mets manager Art Howe. "This is going to be an exciting evening."

Commissioner Bud Selig, MLB president Bob DuPuy, Rachel and the Robinson's daughter, Sharon, hosted a poignant remembrance of the Hall of Fame ballplayer who deserves an eternal resting place far higher than Cooperstown.

Seven years after retiring Robinson's No. 42 in perpetuity, MLB is honoring his heritage.

"I've often been asked, 'Why now?' We celebrate so no generation shall forget what Jackie Robinson did," Selig said. "So young players not only know who Jackie Robinson is, but what Jackie Robinson did for them.

"There is no question in my mind, Jackie Robinson coming to Major League Baseball, was the most powerful moment in baseball history. It transcended baseball.

"It took this extraordinary man -- going through what we never will understand -- to set a path for change in baseball, sports, society," the Commissioner added. "He not only succeeded, but in a way that paved the way for others."

Robinson's influence is seen on every field and in every box score, and Thursday it permeated a brief ceremony prior to the Braves-Mets game.

As a tribute to Jackie flickered on the video board, nine Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars formed an arc foul line-to-foul line, holding up giant "42" placards.

"We take pride in the social progress made in America and in the game," Rachel Robinson told the crowd. "We hope to right the wrongs that still exist with the same courage and determination Jackie showed.

"That will only strengthen us as individuals, our national pastime, and our nation."

The nine scholars then flipped the placards they held to reveal the nine tenets that serve as the foundations of Jackie's legacy:

Courage. Determination. Teamwork. Persistence. Integrity. Citizenship. Justice. Commitment. Excellence.

Concurrently, the video board beamed reflective messages from contemporary baseball stars.

The Commissioner did not contribute any on-field remarks, but he had already poured out his heart in a meeting with the media prior to the ceremony.

"This is one of the happiest days in my life as Commissioner. You've often heard me say that baseball is a social institution, with enormous social responsibility," Selig had said, obviously touched by his role in enabling this occasion.

"It's rare when you can honor a pathfinder for a lot of changes. It's an unbelievable story that should be celebrated."

"It's a thrill to be here tonight," Rachel Robinson had said in the media conference. "I'm grateful for Major League Baseball and fans for joining us in celebrating Jackie's life.

"I know the younger generation is beginning to discover Jackie Robinson. It's exciting to see the younger generation's interest in history. I think they're searching for heroes."

Back on the field, Ruben Studdard belted the National Anthem, backed by the Christ Tabernacle Choir. Genel Ambrose, one of the Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars, followed by throwing out the first pitch.

Then, the game -- the latest of thousands bearing Jackie's legacy -- got under way.

But the festivities never stopped. Tributes to Robinson continued to play on the video board between innings.

And the work never ends.

"There's still lots to do, in baseball and in society," Rachel Robinson reminded. "I hope Jackie's legacy will help lead us."

The day's work had begun earlier, with two ceremonies kicking off Jackie Robinson Day.

At nearby Forest Hills High School, the athletic field was renamed Jackie Robinson Field.

Commissioner Selig, Rachel Robinson and Mets players Tom Glavine and Mike Cameron participated in that ceremony, in conjunction with which MLB made a $1 million presentation to Take the Field. That is a public-private partnership that is rebuilding the athletic facilities of New York City public schools.

And even earlier, Rachel and Sharon Robinson led an entourage that rang the opening bell to start the day's trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Others in that party included Len Coleman, chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and former president of the NL.

The work has continued for 31 years for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, through which he is still opening doors, for aspiring students, through scholarships and mentoring.

"We started it the year after Jackie passed," recalled Rachel, "because we were determined to apply his legacy to some perpetual good. A monument or statue wouldn't do it.

"We both had believed that if you weren't educated. you couldn't fully function in this country. So the Foundation was started in that spirit."

Spirit. Something else of which Jackie Robinson had an abundance.

"He was an incredibly competitive athlete, and he wanted to play," said Rachel Robinson, her lips again curled into a smile by memories. "But he also understood that his position was a key to development in the country.

"After his first few games, when black fans started to come to the park, he began to get the feeling what he meant to our people."

Jackie Robinson was a beacon, casting a light still worth following, and celebrating.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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