Red Sox recall Robinson's impact
Boston students learn how Hall of Famer made history
BOSTON -- Six decades after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, the Red Sox hosted 125 students Wednesday from Boston's Gavin Middle School and McCormack Middle School at Fenway Park for the team's fifth annual event to honor Robinson's life and accomplishments.
As the students settled into their seats in the State Street Pavilion, a private club inside Fenway, the event began with a video montage of Robinson's career, set to Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star," including the lyrics, "You're a shining star, no matter who you are, shining bright to see what you can truly be."
Dr. Charles Steinberg, Red Sox executive vice president for public affairs and the day's master of ceremonies, explained the significance of the song to the students.
"The opportunities you have to pursue any career you want are unlimited because of what Jackie Robinson did 60 years ago," Steinberg said. "We want you to know who Jackie Robinson was."
Robinson attended UCLA, where he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track. He spent three years in the Army before joining the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs in 1945. The 1947 National League Rookie of the Year and 1949 NL MVP, Robinson was a six-time All-Star and helped the Dodgers to six pennants and the 1955 World Series championship. After retiring in 1957, he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Robinson's feat in crossing the color barrier is considered a defining moment in the country's civil rights movement. His outspoken leadership on issues of civil and human rights continued following his baseball career, when he worked with the NAACP and was a figure in national politics until his death in 1972. He worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and influenced presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
In 2005, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress' highest civilian honor, an initiative that was driven by the Red Sox and George Mitrovich, who is the president of the City Club of San Diego.
On Wednesday, several people whose lives were influenced by Robinson shared their memories with the students, as well as Robinson's daughter, Sharon, who is also the author of a new children's book entitled "Safe at Home"; Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University; former Red Sox pitcher Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd; former Red Sox player and coach Tommy Harper, now a development consultant with the Sox; Dick Flavin, the unofficial poet laureate of Red Sox Nation; and Mitrovich.
Sharon Robinson, the vice chairperson of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and an educational consultant for MLB, was just 6 years old when her father retired. She learned of his legacy in much the same way kids do today -- hearing other people talk about it and watching video clips. She shared her memories of growing up with a famous father, something that wasn't always easy when she was trying to find her own identity. She talked of taking rides from their Connecticut home into New York City with her father, watching baseball with him, and lessons she learned from him.
"The most important thing my father taught me is that the most important thing you can do for yourself is love yourself," she said.
Boyd, 47, is a fifth-generation professional baseball player -- he is the first in the Major Leagues, with his father through his great-great-grandfather playing in the Negro Leagues -- and wanted the kids to learn one lesson from the day.
"A lot of people paved the way for you many, many years ago to have the freedom that you have," he said. "Understand that and endure that. You have a privilege that many years ago your race didn't have. Understand that and keep your butt in school and get educated so you can grow up and be a general manager of a baseball team, or be a manager, or play in the Major Leagues, or be a great surgeon, a great lawyer, or maybe be president one day. You never know."
For Harper, a former two-time AL stolen-base champion who still holds the club's record with 54 in 1973, it is gratifying to see the Red Sox -- the team that gave Robinson what is generally regarded as a sham tryout before he signed with the Dodgers -- taking the lead in honoring Robinson's legacy. And, for Harper, the event hits close to home. He was dismissed by the Sox in 1985 after protesting the team's connection to the "whites only" Elks Club in Winter Haven, Fla., then the team's Spring Training home.
"It is somewhat unusual that the very team that wouldn't recognize Jackie in 1947 and before is now recognizing him, but that's progress," the 66-year-old Harper said. "That's what we're all looking for: progress. You just can't stand still. History is history. But the new [Sox] owners came in, and I don't think they went out of their way to recognize Jackie Robinson. I think it just comes from the heart, and that, to me, is the correct way."
For Harper, the legacy of Robinson he wanted the students to remember was to never give up.
"To persevere through all circumstances," Harper said. "Don't let anybody tell you, 'Well, I didn't have a computer. I didn't have this.' If you have a goal in mind, you can achieve it. This is the United States, a great country and you can do anything."
Those lessons were not lost.
"No matter who you are, you're still important," said 14-year-old Jason Pena, a seventh-grader from the McCormack School.
"It was great," said Christian Rosario, an eighth-grader from the McCormack School. "I got to see how much courage it took for Jackie Robinson to do what he did, and how much he affects today. I knew he was one of the first black baseball players, but I didn't know he was the first, and how much he went through."
Steinberg told the kids he hoped they would one day share their experience of learning about Robinson and meeting his daughter with their grandchildren, ensuring Robinson's legacy would project at least another 120 years into the future.
Maureen Mullen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.