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01/31/08 6:52 PM ET

Dodgers help kids remember Jackie

Special visit to Dodger Stadium highlights Robinson's birthday

LOS ANGELES -- April 15 is normally the day when everyone in baseball takes a moment to celebrate the pioneering accomplishments of Jackie Robinson, one of the most admired and beloved figures in the game's history. On Thursday, what would have been his 89th birthday, and the eve of Black History Month, the Dodgers held a Legacy Day in his honor and invited area schoolchildren to Dodger Stadium to learn about Robinson's place in both baseball and American history.

"If any of us could remember being in elementary school or middle school and we got to go on a field trip, we remember a lot of those field trips," said Charles Steinberg, the Dodgers' new chief marketing officer, who also served as master of ceremonies of the luncheon. "If the field trip was to Dodger Stadium, you're going to remember that even more. If the trip to Dodger Stadium was to learn one message -- remember Jackie Robinson, all he did for you [and] now you know your dreams can come true -- you have a very good chance of the child remembering that message."

Schoolchildren from Mayberry Elementary, Atwater Avenue Elementary, 42nd Street Elementary, Jackie Robinson Academy and Roynon Elementary School, along with Jackie Robinson Foundation scholars, learned firsthand about Robinson's remarkable contributions not only to professional baseball, but also to the civil rights movement. The civil rights pioneer paved the way for equal rights and opportunities regardless of race. Robinson's story and legacy was shared with the kids by relatives, teammates and others tied to the Dodgers, who signed Robinson in 1945 as the first black player in professional baseball and with whom he made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947.

Among the people who took part in the event were former Dodgers players Lou Johnson and Tommy Davis, along with Robinson's grandson Jesse Simms, who wore a Dodgers jersey with his grandfather's legendary No. 42 on the back. Also attending were Robinson's niece, Kathy Robinson-Young, who represented the Robinson family on the Dodgers Rose Parade float on Jan. 1, and Don Newcombe, Robinson's good friend and former teammate in Brooklyn, who at 81 stands as one of the last firsthand witnesses of the struggles he and Robinson went through to integrate baseball.

"I want to share with you one final story," Newcombe said at the end of his remarks. "Just before he died in 1968, Martin Luther King, who I had become friends with over the years, came to my house in Los Angeles and had dinner with my family. At the table he told me something I would never forget. He said, 'Don, because of what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to help integrate baseball, how much easier it was for me to do my job.' Here was a man who was being thrown into jail, hit over the head with billy clubs, having attack dogs bite him, and he's telling me that Jackie, Roy and I made his job easier.

"He left quite a legacy and I'm very proud to be a small part of that legacy," said Newcombe. "For him and [wife] Rachel, to think back about how things were then and how they are now, there's been a significant change that Jackie would have been able to witness today had he still been alive."

"Jackie's legacy went further than the baseball diamond," said Johnson, who helped the Dodgers win the 1965 World Series over the Minnesota Twins and has been involved with the organization's community affairs department for more than 30 years. "For me personally and other people, baseball is still the granddaddy of all sports, so more people are watching it. Then when you add the process of education that's been put into this, that makes parents look up and take notice, and for me to be a part of this and talk about Jackie, I get to talk about a person who did a lot for our country."

On April 15, 2007, 60 years after Robinson courageously broke MLB's color barrier, the league hosted its national tribute at Dodger Stadium. More than 200 players throughout MLB wore No. 42 in honor of Robinson, including all Los Angeles Dodgers uniformed personnel. Dodgers owners Frank and Jamie McCourt also extended their support to the Jackie Robinson Foundation with a grant of $105,000 annually for a decade to sponsor 42 new college scholarships, $2,500 each, that benefit minority students in the Los Angeles area. This endowment followed the McCourts' establishment of the "Team 42" Scholarship Program, created on April 15, 2005, in conjunction with the Dodgers Dream Foundation. Team 42 awards 42 scholarships of up to $7,500 annually to students in the greater Los Angeles area that attend a four-year college or university.

Steinberg says the Dodgers will always go the extra mile in commemorating that significant day in April.

"You want to keep April 15 as a joyous day of celebration throughout baseball," said Steinberg. "Those plans for this season are still in gestation. That's why we wanted to do something like this right in the middle of winter, right when you're just starting to take out that glove that you're starting to oil, or start rubbing down that baseball again.

"We want to demonstrate to you that even in the middle of winter, baseball teaches lessons of life and one of the most important is that you can be anything that you want to be, you can pursue any career you want. Why? Because a baseball player for the Dodgers made it so. That's a lesson you can reinforce on April 15 and then you have a summer of baseball and then you come back in January and tell the story again."

Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.