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03/02/05 6:23 PM ET

Robinson awarded Gold Medal

Hall of Famer is second Major Leaguer to receive honor

WASHINGTON -- Jackie Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on Wednesday.

The event in the Capitol rotunda took place nearly 58 years after Robinson first stepped on the field to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking Major League Baseball's color line.

In doing so, Robinson ended the era of segregation in MLB -- and he foreshadowed the civil rights movement that swept across the U.S. more than a decade later.

"Martin Luther King once said something interesting [about Robinson]: He was a freedom rider before freedom rides," said President George W. Bush, only minutes before the medal was presented to Rachel, Jackie's widow. "To me, that says courage and decency and honor."

More than 600 people jammed the rotunda, draped with paintings depicting George Washington and the first American troops in Revolutionary War battles. The podium, from which many of the United States' top political leaders spoke during the ceremony, was flanked by marble statues of Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

MLB was well represented for the occasion. Commissioner Bud Selig, president Bob DuPuy and vice presidents Sandy Alderson, Rob Manfred, Tim Brosnan, John McHale and Jimmie Lee Solomon were in attendance. Frank and Jamie McCourt and Tommy Lasorda represented the Dodgers, Larry Lucchino and Tom Werner represented the Boston Red Sox, and Tony Tavares represented the Nationals.

Selig, DuPuy, the Boston contingent and Bush left after the ceremony for the White House, where the defending World Series champions, the Red Sox, were to be honored.

Selig spoke eloquently before the proceedings started, saying that "what Jackie Robinson did for baseball and America was legendary."

Selig was a young man growing up in Milwaukee when he traveled to Chicago to see Robinson and the Dodgers play at Wrigley Field. As Commissioner, he played an integral role in Robinson's No. 42 being retired throughout the Major Leagues on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first big league game, played on April 15, 1947.

"When you study history, you realize how magnificent his accomplishment was," Selig added.

The Gold Medal is the highest honor Congress can give a civilian, and has only been awarded about 300 times.

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

"It was an incredibly moving day," said Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, who was at the ceremony with her mother and brother David. "It was the culmination of a lot of work. We've been pushing for two years. To see this all the way through and have the president and Sen. [John] Kerry there and Rev. [Jesse] Jackson speak on behalf of the family, it was perfect."

Wednesday's ceremony marked the first time Bush and Kerry, the Democratic candidate for president last year, shared a stage at the same function since November's election.

But Robinson seems to bring all factions together. No athlete may have had a greater long-term impact on his sport or society than Robinson, who died at the age of 53, about two weeks after his appearance at the 1972 World Series.

Jackson, a civil rights leader in the wake of King's assassination, gave the eulogy at Robinson's funeral.

"He was a transforming figure who made life in America better," Jackson said on Wednesday. "He was an heroic freedom fighter who was blessed with enormous gifts outside the lines."

Kerry authored and presented the Robinson Gold Medal bill to the Senate, and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) presented the bill to the House of Representatives.

A Gold Medal bill must be sponsored by 75 percent of the 290 members of the House, as well as at least 67 Senators.

The bill ultimately passed unanimously, and was signed into law by Bush on Oct. 29.

Frank McCourt, a Boston native whose family purchased the Dodgers just a little more than a year ago, said he was moved by the ceremony because of the setting and significance.

"It was a great day. A great day for the Dodgers and a great day for everybody," he said. "There was just an emotional feeling in this great rotunda today. There should be more events like this. Not only in baseball, but in our day-to-day lives."

Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager who is now an advisor to McCourt, was one of only two players who once suited up with Robinson in attendance. The other was Ralph Branca.

"I had the good fortune to play with Jackie," said Lasorda, who played with Robinson in Brooklyn for portions of the 1954 and 1955 seasons. "He was as great a competitor as you ever saw on a baseball field. And when [then-Dodgers president] Branch Rickey looked for the kind of guy to put in that position, he found the right person in Jackie."

Even the Rickey family was represented on Wednesday. Branch Rickey III, the president of the Pacific Coast League, said after the ceremony that his grandfather and Robinson will be linked forever.

"I have come to relish the fact that my family's reputation is entwined with the reputation of Jackie Robinson," Rickey said. "That's a wonderful personal perspective for us. When you attend ceremonies like this, you realize that not only are we enhancing Jackie, but we are enhancing ourselves by trying to give the appropriate acknowledgement.

"We really can't appropriately acknowledge Jackie, but this is as good as it gets."

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.