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01/31/05 6:31 PM ET

Robinson to receive Congressional Gold Medal

Nearly 58 years after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color line when he stepped on the field to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the late Hall of Famer will posthumously receive the Congressional Gold Medal for both his achievements as a player and his role in the earliest stages of America's civil rights movement.

February's Black History month virtually begins today with a celebration of what would have been Robinson's 86th birthday at Boston's Fenway Park and ends when President George W. Bush presents the gold medal to members of the Robinson family on March 2 in the rotunda of the Capitol Building at Washington, D.C.

"Jackie's is an amazing, amazing story," said Commissioner Bud Selig, who played an integral part in Robinson's No. 42 being retired throughout the Major Leagues on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his first big league game -- April 15, 1947. "This kind of national recognition outside of baseball is long overdue."

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The gold medal is the highest honor the Congress can give to a non-military individual, movement or institution and has only been awarded about 300 times since the inception of the U.S. government in 1776.

Robinson is just the fourth athlete and second baseball player to receive the medal, following Roberto Clemente (1973), Joe Louis (1982) and Jesse Owens (1988).

"Jackie spent a lifetime advocating for the rights of others," said Rachael Robinson, his former wife, who is planning to be at the ceremony along with their daughter Sharon, son David, and a number of other family members. "I trust this extraordinary recognition of his life and legacy will serve to inspire the courageous and visionary leadership that he exhibited."

All four gold medal athletes are minorities, who had tremendous impact on society and their sports. Louis and Owens were African Americans. Louis was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all-time and Owens had an incredible international impact on track and field. Both participated in their sports in the era before World War II when schools, theaters and even some sports arenas were still segregated throughout the U.S.

Clemente, the great Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder, and a native of Puerto Rico, perished on New Year's Eve of 1972 when a small airplane carrying food and water crashed during a mercy mission to what was then earthquake-torn Nicaragua. He became the first athlete to be awarded the gold medal on May 14, 1973.

But no athlete may have had a greater long-term impact on his sport or society than Robinson, who died at 53.

"Jackie Robinson exemplified the utmost courage, determination, character and competitiveness," said Dodgers co-owner Jamie McCourt, who intends to represent the organization at the gold medal ceremony. "His impact on the game was legendary, and his gift to the nation is priceless. Jackie brought a special strength to the Dodgers organization, on and off the field. It is a proud day to see one of the Dodgers' finest being honored as one of America's finest."

The impetus behind the awarding of the gold medal came from an unlikely source. It began with a query from George Mitrovich, the head of the City Club of San Diego, the Denver Forum and a former press attaché to the late Senator Robert Kennedy.

Mitrovich, a civic force behind the building of San Diego's PETCO Park, said he learned to appreciate the force that was Jackie Robinson as he forged a relationship with former Negro League star and manager Buck O'Neil, who has been honored numerous times in southern California for his contribution to baseball.

"It was Buck O'Neil, who first made me understand that before President Truman desegregated the military, before Brown vs. the Board of Education, before civil rights marches in the south and before the Birmingham bus boycott, before anyone ever heard of Martin Luther King Jr., there was Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier," Mitrovich said. "And the significance of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier was infinitely greater than its impact upon baseball. It had a huge societal effect."

After determining an apt and eloquent national recognition for Robinson, Mitrovich asked last year's Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, to author and present the Robinson gold medal bill to the Senate.

By law, a gold medal bill must be sponsored by 75 percent of the 290 members of the House of Representatives and at least 67 Senators.

It was presented to the Senate by Kerry and John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Feb. 4, 2003.

In his speech, Kerry told his colleagues that Robinson's signing by the Dodgers was so significant because it "engaged the American people in a constructive conversation about race."

"Off the field Jackie Robinson was a business leader, a civil rights leader and a human rights leader," Kerry said. "His ideas and principles influenced some of America's greatest politicians, including (Presidents) John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Jackie Robinson was more than a sports hero, he was an American hero."

The bill ultimately passed and was signed into law by President Bush last Oct. 29.

When the Robinson family is awarded the gold medal on March 2, the process will have taken nearly three years from the seed of the original idea to the actual ceremony.

"This kind of recognition helps us instill in children the principles by which Jackie Robinson lived: courage, commitment, perseverance, discipline and a strong sense of community," said Della Britton Baeza, president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. "It shows that we still have heroes of Jackie's ilk. That's why we're so thrilled about this."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.