Jackie Robinson Civil Rights Museum, off-screen work

There was a time, and not too long ago, when you could ask a major league player about Jackie Robinson and get a shrug in return. The league retired its number in 1997, on the 50th anniversary of its debut, in the presence of President Clinton. It made for a great ceremony, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Jackie Robinson Day really took hold.

That’s when Ken Griffey Jr. called then-Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. To this day, Selig remains stunned by what Griffey told him.

“‘A lot of guys’ – and I quote him directly – ‘don’t know who Jackie Robinson is,'” Selig told me the other day.

Griffey asked if he could wear the retired No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. In two years, every player has done it, and the annual remembrance serves a dual purpose: a regular checkpoint in baseball’s quest to regain prominence in the black community, and a celebration of Robinson breaking the barrier. colours.

“I believe this is the most important and powerful moment in baseball history,” Selig said.

This is what makes the opening of the Jackie Robinson Museum so significant. On this 75th anniversary of his debut, MLB has done a commendable job of reclaiming and sharing Robinson’s legacy as a baseball player.

Exhibits at the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York.

(Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

The museum also tells the story of Robinson’s incredible life off the pitch. Enter the museum and the first room you see is not the one celebrating his sporting achievements.

“It was absolutely deliberate,” said Della Britton, president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

“Even if you come with the idea of ​​seeing the history of baseball and learning more about it, you have to walk through this piece that speaks to its commitment to economic opportunity, civil rights and social justice.”

Robinson’s life tasks are displayed in large capital letters in this room: SOLDIER, CAMPAIGN, CIVIL OFFICER, ACTIVIST, FUNDRAISER, ORGANIZER, PROTESTER, ENTREPRENEUR, CITIZEN and more.

There’s the “by the numbers” displays you’d expect in a museum on a sports star, but “3” is the number of presidential candidates he campaigned for, “4” is the number of presidents with whom he corresponded on racial injustice, “6” is the number of years his department store in Harlem was open, and “1949” is the year he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Of all the artifacts on display, Britton said she was perhaps the proudest to share Robinson’s testimony before this commission, with his handwritten notes accompanied by his typed speech.

White media, she said, shed light on the perceived feud between Robinson and Paul Robeson, a prominent black actor and singer who allegedly said black Americans should not go to war with the Soviet Union. while the Communists had treated the blacks there with dignity. Robinson called the alleged comments “dumb.”

But the museum also displays coverage of the testimony in black media, which instead focused on Robinson’s central message: “The fact that he is a communist who speaks out against injustice in the courts, police brutality and lynching when it happens does not alter the truth of his accusations…. Negroes have been restless long before there was a communist party, and they will remain restless long after the party is gone, unless Jim Crow has also gone by then.

To the congressman who that day told Robinson to be patient, Robinson asked if black people hadn’t been patient long enough. At this point, the museum highlights a 1950 letter to Robinson from Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive so famous for signing it.

Robinson had expressed interest in management. “Hopefully the day will come soon when it will be entirely possible, as it is only fair, that you may be considered,” Rickey wrote. In 1972, Robinson died, never having seen a black man do well in the major leagues.

A Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and bat on display at the Jackie Robinson Museum.

A Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and bat on display at the Jackie Robinson Museum.

(Julia Nikhinson/Associated Press)

The museum opens to the public on Monday. Robinson’s team had a private visit last Wednesday, before the Dodgers took on the New York Mets.

“Jackie’s passion was civil rights and equality, and more than baseball,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “It was more baseball, it was just a way for him to use his voice, which is pretty cool to see and actually quite inspiring.”

This is the ultimate mission of the museum – not only to share how Robinson made a difference, but to encourage you to do the same.

In one area of ​​the museum, visitors can select one of Robinson’s causes – fair housing, equal pay, police brutality, inclusive education, job creation or drug policy advocacy – and learn what he has done to further the cause and what someone could do to further the same cause today. Robinson, for example, helped start the Freedom National Bank, which offered jobs, loans, and mortgages to the Harlem community.

In another area, visitors can see and hear testimonials from distinguished Americans about how Robinson affected their lives – from some athletes, yes, but also from former President George W. Bush and former prosecutor . General Eric H. Holder Jr.

The museum is highly interactive, with your visit determined by your interests. It made for a delightful morning for my 12-year-old daughter, Aria, who isn’t much of a baseball fan and told me she considers most museums places to “walk around and look at things while your parents gasp and point at things. ”

In this museum, she says, “I learned a lot more than I thought without even realizing it, because it was so much fun.”

If your interests are limited to baseball, there’s plenty to enjoy here, including a scale model of Ebbets Field, complete with famed Brooklyn broadcaster Red Barber calling for action. (Britton said Vin Scully, who said a classic ice skating story with Robinsonis also cited in the museum.)

But the museum stands as an inspiring and respectful tribute to a man whose Dodger Stadium statue features this quote from Robinson: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

Times writer Jack Harris contributed to this report.

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