04/14/05 10:51 PM ET
Robinson honored at plaque unveiling
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
"I looked up at the sky and said, 'Jack, what am I going to talk about today?'" Newcombe said. "Jack said, 'Well, you never asked me that before, so just say what you're gonna say."
Newcombe, a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues who went on to play alongside Robinson and Negro League veteran catcher Roy Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, did exactly that.
He was among the guests and Robinson family members on hand to honor the fleet-footed and iron-willed infielder who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier on April 15, 1947, when he took the field for the Dodgers.
Standing on a dais under the shadow of the 1984 Olympic torch, Newcombe joined event emcee and legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, Robinson's widow, Rachel, and other local dignitaries.
One of them was Dan Guerrero, the current athletic director of UCLA, where Jackie Robinson lettered in baseball, football, basketball and track from 1939-1941.
Another was Jamie McCourt, the wife of current Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and the team's vice chairman.
And they all said plenty.
Newcombe brought the crowd back to an evening in March 1968, when he hosted a dinner at his home for Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated a month later in Memphis, Tenn.
"Dr. King said, 'You, Jackie and Roy will never know how much easier you made it for me by what you did for baseball,'" Newcombe said. "Imagine that."
Newcombe also had pointed words about late baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who opposed the desegregation of the Major Leagues. Robinson broke the color line with the help of Landis' successor, Happy Chandler, and Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey.
"Ladies and gentlemen, something happened one day," Newcombe said. "Kenesaw Mountain Landis died. He died, and things changed."
Scully weaved the ceremony together seamlessly while providing some endearing memories of his own.
"Jackie was busy planting trees under whose shade he never expected to sit," Scully said. "He was a most valuable person as well as a Most Valuable Player."
Scully remembered a day in the visiting clubhouse at the old Polo Grounds, where the New York Giants played before the franchise moved to San Francisco. Robinson and Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese were orchestrating a gentlemen's bet to see who would get booed more enthusiastically by the archrival's fans.
Scully said Reese exited the room first and was greeted with an unfathomable amount of boos as soon as he appeared, but that Robinson generated even more jeering before he got through the door, prompting him to wink back at Scully.
"I learned that what are boos to you and me were really a tribute to his tremendous athletic ability," Scully said. "It's a moment I'll never forget."
The plaque is one way of assuring that Robinson will never be forgotten at the Coliseum, the site of football games for the University of Southern California Trojans -- the sworn crosstown enemy of Robinson's UCLA Bruins.
But Zev Yaroslavsky, the Coliseum commissioner -- and a UCLA alum -- decided that too much time had gone by without a plaque for Robinson, who was an All-American baseball and football player, a two-time conference scoring leader in basketball and an NCAA record-holder in the long jump.
"When he left UCLA, his track teammates gave him a travel bag with the inscription, 'The greatest all-around athlete in UCLA history,' and it's as accurate today as it was then," said UCLA chancellor Albert Carnesale.
"But his courage was what we remember the most."
The Coliseum and UCLA split the cost of the plaque, which is imbued with Robinson's portrait and a list of his athletic and humanitarian accomplishments, including the posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom he was awarded in 1984, the retiring of his uniform No. 42 by all of MLB on the 50th anniversary of his first game in 1997 and his Congressional Gold Medal.
"I don't know of anyone who has contributed more to society who is honored here than Jackie," Yaroslavsky said. "Jackie still speaks to us every day and will continue to speak to us."
In addition to the huge list of Robinson's achievements, the plaque also had a few quotes. One described Robinson as, "an enduring symbol of a stellar athlete, a man of courage and a life lived well."
The other was attributed to Robinson, who said, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
Rachel Robinson spoke proudly of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she founded in 1973. The Foundation continues to provide educational and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources.
"He was a very deeply spiritual man and a very humble man," Rachel Robinson said of her husband, who died in 1972 at the age of 53.
"He believed in the promise of America."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.