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04/16/05 12:14 AM ET

Robinson honored throughout Majors

Big leaguers reflect on historic day on 58th anniversary

LOS ANGELES -- The heart, soul and mind of Jackie Robinson was everywhere Friday, and his widow couldn't help but smile, no matter how exhausted she might have been.

Eighty-two-year-old Rachel Robinson had a few helpings more than a full plate in her home city this week, attending to every detail of a whirlwind two days.

"There is still much to be accomplished in our homeland," Rachel said of her pioneer of a husband, who became the first black player in the Major Leagues in the 20th century when he signed with the Dodgers in 1947.

"Jack's legacy and spirit lives on."

And it lived on in ballparks all over the country on the 58th anniversary of Jackie's first game in the big leagues.

Every home ballpark showed a moving video tribute to Robinson, and many brought out Jackie Robinson Foundation (JRF) scholars onto the field before the games.

The JRF, a public, non-profit national organization founded by Rachel Robinson in 1973, the year after Jackie's death, provides education and leadership development opportunities for minority students.

About 1,000 students were sent to the colleges of their choice by the organization since 1973, and the JRF boasts a 97 percent graduation rate.

"Honoring Jackie and his legacy means so much to me," said Gabrielle Tyler, a JRF scholar alumnus who attended the Rangers-Blue Jays game at Ameriquest Field in Arlington.

"This introduces a whole new generation to Jackie Robinson and what he meant to society. It means more to me now than it did when I got the scholarship. I know the new winners will have a better appreciation in time."

The scholars aren't the only ones who have a better appreciation of Robinson.

In Cincinnati, superstar outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. spoke of how much every African-American ballplayer owes Robinson, who was hand-picked by then-Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey to break the color line because of Robinson's inner courage and ability to keep his temper in check. "If he was a hothead and things happened, who knows if the owners would have taken that chance to allow different nationalities to play baseball? But he played the game hard and he played it right. If he didn't, we wouldn't be celebrating what he's done on and off the field."

Oakland A's infield coach Ron Washington, reflecting at McAfee Coliseum before a game against the Angels, agreed.

"Look at me," said Washington, who grew up in racially charged New Orleans and went on to play for 10 years in the big leagues.

"Look where I am, look where I've been, and look what I'm getting paid to do. I ain't here without Jackie Robinson.

"He was an amazing man, and people of color everywhere -- not just African-Americans -- owe him so much."

That was the consensus from coast to coast Friday.

"What Jackie accomplished in the game, on and off the field, is very historic and it's certainly very special," said Pittsburgh Pirates skipper Lloyd McClendon from PNC Park, where the Pirates took on the Chicago Cubs.

"It's certainly one of the reasons that I am sitting here today."

That sentiment also was echoed by Cleveland Indians outfielder Coco Crisp, who put Jackie Robinson's life in historical perspective.

"Being able to play and not deal with all that [racism], and not just him, but other people: Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and people like that," Crisp said.

"He was one of them, kind of breaking a barrier. It means a lot to honor African-Americans, black people who break down color barriers."

When Mets manager Willie Randolph spoke of Robinson, it was with pride, but also with a tinge of personal sadness.

Randolph was born in 1954, about 2 1/2 years before Robinson ended his run with the Dodgers. Randolph was raised in Brooklyn but never got a chance to meet Robinson.

"He's one of those people I missed," Randolph said. "You meet a lot of great people doing what we do, but I just wish I got to meet Mr. Robinson. That would have been one of the greatest days in my life."

But in 1987, he got a pretty memorable consolation prize. Randolph escorted Rachel Robinson from the dugout to second base for a ceremony.

"One of the greatest honors of my life," Randolph said. "What a wonderful lady. I was proud to meet her."

Milwaukee Brewers first-base coach Dave Nelson never met Jackie Robinson, either, but that didn't mean the man didn't help change Nelson's life.

Robinson was out of baseball by 1964, when Nelson signed his first professional baseball contract. A speedy outfielder, Nelson, who is African-American, was assigned to Dubuque, Iowa, of the Midwest League.

"I experienced a lot of prejudice there," said Nelson, now 60.

"Some of the restaurants wouldn't serve me. They wouldn't rent an apartment to me. People would call you names. One day I was in a store to buy some jeans and a security guard followed me all over the store."

Nelson hit a breaking point and almost quit, but his mother reminded him that Dave's idol, Jackie Robinson, went through a lot worse.

Nelson stuck with it and went on to play 10 Major League seasons for Cleveland, Washington, Texas and Kansas City before embarking on a successful coaching career.

"He had to have thick skin, and he had to bite his tongue because he was going to go through hell," Nelson said. "Not only from the opposition, but from his own teammates. Could I have done that? I don't think so."

Robinson's hardships were not only experienced in the Major Leagues.

He spent one year with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, and some of his colleagues from that forgotten era were on hand at various stadiums to share their thoughts and remembrances.

"To me, this is the most magnificent thing that can happen in baseball," said former Negro Leaguer Lucious Williams, who appeared in Arlington.

"I know Jackie is looking at us now and smiling. I'm telling you, this guy made baseball. He changed the game and changed how we look at it."

At Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, the Phillies commemorated Robinson by honoring the four living members of the Negro Leagues' Philadelphia Stars: Mahlon Duckett, Stanley Glenn, Harold Gould and Bill Cash.

"Today is important, and it should carry the same significance every year," Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins said.

"It doesn't get old to remember someone like Jackie Robinson. You remember Jackie Robinson as a man. You remember Jackie Robinson as a player who played under certain conditions and he overcame that."

And back at Dodger Stadium, ballplayers and coaches remembered what Jackie Robinson said was the most important lesson he had learned: that "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

San Diego Padres coach and former Dodgers star Davey Lopes, who wore the number 42 as a coach in tribute to Robinson before the number was universally retired throughout baseball, summed it all up beautifully.

"There might have been better ballplayers who put up better numbers," Lopes said.

"But you look at everything he did and what was on his shoulders, he might be the greatest player ever to put on a baseball uniform."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Jesse Sanchez, Mike Petraglia, Anthony Castrovince, Mychael Urban, Ed Eagle, Justice Hill, Marty Noble, Bryan Hoch, Adam McCalvy, Joseph Santoliquito, John Schlegel, Mike Petraglia and Gary Washburn contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.