04/15/11 6:24 PM ET
Brooklyn a fitting start for Jackie Robinson Day
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
On the morning of Jackie Robinson Day, Sharon Robinson had the undivided interest of a packed auditorium at John Wilson Middle School.
"She was dynamic; just seemed like a little powerhouse in terms of when she spoke," the school's principal, Buffie Simmons, said. "Some kids would not have really had the attention span for that, but they were just so drawn in based on her experience."
Sharon Robinson has been making stops around the city for many years on April 15 -- a day that commemorates her father, and in turn baseball's deep-rooted impact on social change.
Her first stop on this year's anniversary was at I.S. 211 John Wilson, to honor William Chambers -- the 13-year-old who won the "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" essay contest -- and to capture the short attention span of the students in sixth through eighth grade, by recounting her father's eventful life and teaching them a little something about perseverance.
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Robinson calls every April 15 "a wonderful work day."
"We're proud of this day," she said, "and we're proud that we can be out in the community and involved with kids, as well as celebrating with Major League Baseball."
In a slide-show presentation at the school's auditorium, Robinson talked about Jim Crow laws; Branch Rickey's first meeting with her father; Monopoly night every Saturday at the Robinson household; her father's famous steal of home in the 1955 World Series; the jazz concert her dad held to raise bond money to bail civil rights activists out of jail; and the day he died of a heart attack on Oct. 24, 1972 -- two days after he called Sharon just to tell her he loved her while she was a senior at Howard University.
"She's a teacher at heart," Simmons said. "She was able to not just connect with the students, but also connect with the adults there."
In 2011, 9,600 works were submitted for the "Breaking Barriers" essay contest, and Chambers' -- which addressed his educational challenges as a young African-American -- was one of those who came out on top, winning him a laptop, a Friday night visit to Yankee Stadium and an appearance from Sharon.
"It's really exciting to meet Sharon Robinson for all the accomplishments that her father has earned throughout his lifetime," said Chambers, an eighth grader who wants to be a pediatric doctor. "It was really an honor."
The "Breaking Barriers" initiative is "a baseball-themed character education program" developed by MLB and Scholastic Inc., which offers a curriculum based on values demonstrated by Jackie Robinson -- determination, commitment, persistence, integrity, justice, courage, teamwork, citizenship and excellence.
In 15 years, the program has reached more than 19 million youth and 2.7 million educators in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico. The essay contest requires students in fourth through eighth grade to write about obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives, and how they used values exemplified by Jackie Robinson to overcome them.
This year, the winner brought Sharon Robinson to the borough where her father changed baseball forever on April 15, 1947.
"I can't think of a better place for me to start off Jackie Robinson Day other than being in a school here in Brooklyn, and with such a talented writer with an amazing story, so I was really, really proud that William submitted his essay and won," she said. "And it was just a perfect way for us to start off this day."
At the MLB Fan Cave, Sharon Robinson joined Chambers and his parents, Kim and Orville, on a tour led by MLB Dream Job winner Mike O'Hara and his wingman, Ryan Wagner. The Cavemen both wore No. 42 Dodgers home jerseys for the occasion, and O'Hara said he "felt a little Willy Wonka right there, showing the kids the chocolate factory, because this place makes me feel like a big kid. He's easy-going and shy, but you could tell there were things here that made his eyes light up."
"The Fan Cave is cool," Chambers said. "I like how they've added a lot of creativity to add that urban touch to it. My favorite part is the party room downstairs."
When asked to describe his entire day as a center of attention, the eighth-grader showed the eloquence that came through in his powerful three-page essay.
"In all, the day is an honor," he said. "I was very ecstatic and happy and excited when I won, and it just goes to show that any child all over the world can do anything that they put their mind to. With the right morals and logic, you can do anything."
Robinson called the Fan Cave "pure fun, just an energy place. Mike and Ryan are fabulous, and then to be able to share that with William and his family -- you could tell he was being 13-year-old cool, but he still was enjoying his exposure to baseball in this kind of unique way."
At one point, Robinson was seated on the couch with the two Cavemen and noticed that there were 15 HD versions of her on the Cave Monster -- 15 TV screens all showing an MLB Network interview of her from earlier in the day at MLB's star-studded event in Newark, N.J.
"Oh, that hair," she said in her inimitable way.
After some couch conversation, autographs and an interview or two, she was off to pick up her 88-year-old mother Rachel, and then it was straight to Yankee Stadium. A tradition continued, one that Sharon Robinson proudly carries on as a true legacy.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. Mark Newman contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.