LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers players, in full uniform, walked together through the center-field gate Friday afternoon, gathered around the Jackie Robinson statue, listened to an impassioned 20-minute speech, and took pictures.
They quickly retreated to the clubhouse, took off their uniforms, and began to prepare for their game against the Cincinnati Reds.
One man stayed.
Dodgers All-Star third baseman Justin Turner simply wasn’t ready to leave.
Turner stayed, speaking to anyone and everyone who had a camera, a notepad or a microphone, and all the while he kept his eye on the man who spoke to the team.
Finally, he saw an opening.
David Robinson, the son of immortal Jackie Robinson, was alone. Turner rushed up, extended his right hand, and shook it vigorously.
“Thank you for coming out,’’ Turner said. “Thank you. Thank you. It means so much to us.’’
They talked for a few minutes. Turner pointed to his white uniform top, with “Dodgers” on the front and the number “42” on the back, and told Robinson just what it meant to him personally.
“There’s a lot accountability, a lot of responsibility when you wear this jersey,’’ Turner told him, adding that “There’s an opportunity to do something special.’’
As Turner started to walk away, he asked Robinson if he wanted to step in and play third base in the game.
“Well, not if you’re trying to win,’’ Robinson, 70, said with a laugh.
Robinson carried his father’s legacy throughout the day on the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. He spent Friday morning with Dodgers starter David Price, who read the book, “I am Jackie Robinson’’ to a Pasadena, California, elementary school. David Robinson and Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts spent several hours at Jackie Robinson’s former high school, John Muir, where a mural in the baseball great’s honor was unveiled. David Robinson then talked to the entire Dodgers team in front of Jackie Robinson’s statue in the afternoon, and then escorted his mother to the Dodger Stadium field before the game.
Rachel Robinson, the 99-year-old widow of Jackie, entered the field on a golf cart where Dodger luminaries and Lakers great Magic Johnson warmly greeted her. Several Dodgers players walked over to say hello. Cincinnati Reds outfielder Tommy Pham ran from the dugout to meet her. Edwin Jackson and Curtis Granderson of the Players Alliance publicly thanked her and gave her a Jackie Robinson jacket.
The huge crowd gave her several warm, emotional ovations, knowing her role in history and the immense impact she had throughout Jackie Robinson’s trailblazing path.
“Every time she’s around, she just lights up the entire stadium,’’ Turner said. “I think a lot of people talked about Jackie and what he endured and everything he did, but I don’t think she got enough credit for going through it with him.’’
The last time Rachel and Jackie Robinson were together at a baseball field, Jackie was giving a speech before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. He said that while it was great that baseball was finally integrated, it was time to see a Black man as manager.
Jackie Robinson died nine days later – three years before Frank Robinson became the first Black manager in baseball history.
Now, here was Rachel, looking into the Dodgers’ dugout, and seeing Dave Roberts – the first Black manager in franchise history.
“It’s emotional when I let my mind go there,’’ Roberts said. “Jackie was all about moving forward. So to appreciate how far we’ve come is certainly fair, but more importantly, is where we need to go.
“That’s what kind of pushes and challenges all of us, to keep getting better, and to make change.’’
Major League Baseball certainly has made progress, but plenty of work remains, with a declining Black population of only 6.8% of players, just two Black managers and one Black man in charge of baseball operations.
It’s no different than society, David Robinson says, citing the inequity of job opportunities, salaries, education and the judicial system.
“Let’s ask ourselves, ‘Where have we come as a nation in the last 75 years?’ ” Robinson said. “Have we really brought ourselves together? Have we really created equality? Is there some sustainable within gainful employment that all Americans are able to achieve? Are we unified as a nation and then made stronger by that unity? Are we in sync with our neighbors around the world? What is the African-American position? What’s our plan for survival and self-development?
“Those are the questions [Jackie] would ask if he was here today, because those questions are still right on the table of challenges that are facing America now.’’
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Robinson spoke for 20 minutes, allowing the Dodgers to digest every word. Just like his father, they don’t have to be merely baseball players, either. They can help make a difference.
“I believe Jackie Robinson would say we will make progress when we create a plan as a people, think as a people, collect our resources as a people, and then integrate that plan into American development and integrate that plan into global development,” David Robinson said.
“There are things that we need to do as a nation together. There are things that African Americans are going to have to take on our own shoulders to represent our own interests. We need to develop our economic, social and political integration on a global basis for our own benefit to feed into the development of humanity.’’
Roberts, who brought out every player in full uniform to listen to Robinson, nodded in agreement. He has a platform himself, and scolds MLB for shortening the draft to 20 rounds, believing it will greatly impact the opportunity for Black kids to reach the big leagues. He reminded everyone that he was a 28th-round pick who wound up having a 10-year major-league career. He even made a statement by his dress Friday, wearing socks with a picture of Robinson’s face in a Dodger uniform, with shoes that read, “We rise together.’’’
“Baseball … it’s bigger than us individually,’’ Roberts said, “so we all have a platform and opportunity and responsibility, as David said today. If I have an opportunity or platform to speak about things that I believe in that are right, and treating people fairly, then why would I not take advantage of that because I do encourage my players to speak up about things that they believe in…
“I think that we need to continue to challenge each other.’’
It was a powerful message that Robinson delivered to the Dodgers, and anyone who would listen. It’s not enough simply to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, and having everyone wear No. 42. Jackie stood for so much more than just being a ballplayer.
“When you hear it coming from the family, and experiences, and what they went through,’’ Turner said, “it’s pretty special. You know the whole story, but it’s a different perspective, a lot heavier coming from David.
“Just standing here in front of the statue, spreading enlightenment on everything that Jackie and his family endured, to change the course of the country, and change the direction of the country, and create opportunities for so many people, is really humbling.’’
The 75th anniversary celebration will be over by Saturday morning, with Robinson and his mom scheduled to fly to New York, but Robinson hopes that his words will be forever remembered by the Dodgers, leaving a lasting impact.
“You’ve got to keep the faith,’’ Robinson said. “That’s what one of the victories in 1947 was, to build the spirit, confidence, self-identity within the African American, and change the identity picture in America. So you have to take that spirit. Take that faith. Take those traits that have been developed, and put them into a framework of some practical, implementable plan.
“Keeping the faith and having the spirit is a great thing, but if it’s not inside of a plan, it really doesn’t go very far.’’
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