Robinson always saw the big picture
Dodgers great kept his composure in times of adversity
The baseball world will turn its attention on Sunday to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, the focal point for the league-wide 60th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut.
There will be an elaborate celebration of Robinson's life-long accomplishments at Dodgers Stadium as well as tributes throughout Major League baseball.
With all of the festivities that are planned, nothing will say more about the man Jackie Robinson than a day 35 years ago this June, when Robinson himself stepped onto the field at Dodger Stadium for the final time.
The date was June 4, 1972, when the Dodgers held a pregame ceremony to retire the first three numbers in team history -- Robinson's No. 42, Roy Campanella's No. 39 and Sandy Koufax's No. 32.
A picture taken in front of the Dodgers' dugout on the third-base side of the stadium captures the event. Jackie is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with blue pants and a blue tie. Campanella, in a wheelchair as the result of a 1958 auto accident, has on a Brooklyn cap and is wearing a Dodgers jersey. And then there is Koufax in full uniform.
The three men are holding large glass frames containing their legendary jerseys.
What the picture doesn't show, however, is the commotion just before the start of the ceremonies.
As a member of the Dodgers' front office, I had been standing next to Robinson and a few other people who were to be involved in the ceremony near the steps of the Dodger dugout when a fan in the seats directly above shouted "Jackie, Jackie, please sign this ball."
The man tossed a baseball in Jackie's direction, not realizing the vision of the once-great athlete had deteriorated so badly due to diabetes that he had no way of seeing the ball.
The ball bounced off Jackie's shoulder and hit him in the head. Several people around Jackie went wild with anger, shouting at the man who had made the ill-advised throw.
Above those loud voices came the reasonable and calming voice of Jackie Robinson.
"Give me the ball," he said. "Calm down and give me the ball. He doesn't know."
Jackie borrowed a pen, signed the ball and had it returned to the fan.
While people around him were shouting and losing control, Robinson retained his presence and responded with dignity.
I think about that moment in time as I think about Jackie Robinson and the tributes that will be paid to him on Sunday.
I think about how Jackie had to withstand verbal abuse and turmoil as he broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues in 1947.
I think about how he responded to all of the adversity that came his way with an ability to keep his focus and to keep his ultimate goals in mind.
I think about his quote that was to define his life: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
All of the members of the Dodgers will be wearing No. 42 this Sunday, and several other teams and players throughout the game will pay tribute to Robinson by wearing his number.
It is somewhat interesting that Jackie chose not to wear his uniform jersey or even a Dodgers cap when his number was retired at Dodger Stadium.
Robinson had moved beyond baseball at that point. He really had turned his attention to other areas as soon as he retired from the game in December 1956, after being traded by the Dodgers to the New York Giants. Just imagine that, Robinson traded to the Giants for a journeyman left-handed pitcher and $30,000. Jackie knew the trade didn't make any sense for him or the Dodgers, and when he immediately retired the trade was voided.
Robinson always seemed to understand the big picture. He was losing his eyesight at a relatively young age, but he never lost his vision in wanting to help people in need.
His last public appearance came four months after the ceremony at Dodger Stadium when he was at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati to throw out the first ball before game No. 2 of the 75th World Series. As frail as he had become while battling diabetes and heart disease, Robinson went to that World Series because he had a message he wanted to deliver.
"I'd like to see a black manager," he said. "I'd like to see the day when there is a black man coaching third base."
Robinson wanted opportunities for minorities. He sought an equal playing field.
Nine days after that appearance, on Oct. 24, 1972, Jackie Robinson passed away. He was 53.
In 30 years with the Dodgers, the greatest honor I ever had was to stand in the company of Jackie Robinson.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. His book -- Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue -- was published by SportsPublishing, LLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.