Grandson proud to tell Robinson's message
For so many reasons, Jackie Robinson deserves even higher marks in the history books as a national icon. Sixty-five years ago this weekend, he didn't just shatter the color barrier in baseball, but he became the Great Emancipator of the 20th century.
He really did. In fact, he was all of that and more, and this was before he spent April 15, 1947, trotting to first base at Ebbets Field for his Major League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Who was the first athlete in the history of UCLA to win varsity letters in four sports? Uh-huh. Not only that, Robinson was impressive while playing semi-professional football and basketball.
More striking, three years before Robinson became baseball's first African-American player, he already was into social justice. On July 6, 1944, for instance, he was Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks, when he refused to move to the back of an Army bus while serving in the military. He was court-martialed, but he was acquitted by an all-white jury.
This can't be stressed enough, and it hasn't been: Robinson's act of defiance on behalf of integration occurred 11 years before Parks refused to move from the front of that bus in Montgomery, Ala.
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So what else has society forgotten, underplayed or overlooked regarding the legacy of Jack Roosevelt Robinson?
"I think there are a bunch of things," said Jesse Simms, 33, Robinson's proud grandson.
Simms is a special assistant these days for Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner, and his emphasis is on the educational and outreach aspects of something in baseball that would make his grandfather smile -- the Diversity Initiative Program.
Added Simms, "There are things that haven't been said enough about what my grandfather wanted to accomplish in his lifetime but what he wasn't able to do. And I think it's our job -- as those who are living his legacy -- to highlight his accomplishments, and to talk about the things that we all need to do in society to honor his name."
In case you're wondering, Simms was born seven years after Robinson died at 53 from complications involving his heart and diabetes on Oct. 24, 1972. Even so, the grandson carries the grandfather in his soul, partly because of Sharon Robinson, his mother and Jackie's daughter, who works for the Commissioner's Office, and his grandmother, Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, who will turn 90 in June.
The mother and the grandmother continue to give Simms the deepest meaning of those Jackie Robinson stories, and he internalizes them. Plus, he understands better than most what his grandfather overcame to slay obstacles with conviction and courage.
"I was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 29, and I was in a coma, and I didn't come out of it for two weeks," Simms said. "Me, being a diabetic, and having to fight through that, with my kids and everything. ... So you know what I'm really proud of regarding my grandfather? It was his ability to fight through this disease.
"There were two battles he was fighting. He was fighting for his life, and he was fighting for his family. He was just a fighter."
That is among Simms' eternal messages.
While most of the Robinson family will be in New York this weekend for baseball's yearly Jackie Robinson celebration, Simms is in Atlanta, where he will deliver several of his eternal messages.
Simms will attend the Braves' three-game series at Turner Field against the Milwaukee Brewers, and Sunday's game will be an official part of what baseball calls Jackie Robinson Day. Before that, Simms will be the inspirational speaker on Saturday for the Braves' inaugural Jackie Robinson Baseball Invitational, featuring 16 teams of mostly African-American youngsters from ages five through 12. They will play in a free tournament from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m ET.
Braves African-American outfielder Michael Bourn also will join Simms for this event, which is designed to help black youngsters stay motivated to play a sport that has seen its number of African-American players decline on a percentage basis since the 1970s.
"I think we all would agree that we want more African-American involvement inside the game of baseball, and that's just the bottom line," Simms said. "I can't speak for my grandfather, but I feel that he would be happy with where we've come, but he also would be fighting for where we've got to go."
As for Simms' background, he was born in New York, but he grew up in Stamford, Conn., where his grandparents lived for years. Simms was a standout middle linebacker in high school, and he eventually tried to follow in his grandfathers' cleat steps at UCLA, but he transferred to play at Penn State for a brief stint.
Simms never played baseball.
"I think that just because of my size and everything else, weighing 285 pounds and running the 40 [yard dash] in 4.6 [seconds], football was a natural for me," said Simms, who spends much of his time with his wife and family in Tampa, Fla., where he talks "Jackie Robinson" to anybody who wishes to hear his eternal messages.
As for Simms' decision to deliver those messages this weekend in Atlanta as opposed to somewhere else, he cited a restaurant venture he is trying to bring to the area. Then he added, "It just seems right to be in Atlanta [for Jackie Robinson Day], with such a multicultural environment. And, obviously, you have my grandfather coming from Georgia."
Robinson was raised in Pasadena, Calif., but he was born to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Ga.
You know, something else folks likely don't know.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.