by Scott Kindberg
February 18, 2014
Sharon Robinson Provides Ultimate History Lesson
But what I’ll remember most from the half hour I spent with her in a hospitality room at the Lakewood Rod & Gun Club was the history lesson I received.
It was better than any upper-level class at any college.
With a huge assist to Greg Peterson, a 2012 CSHOF inductee and our area’s ultimate sports historian who spearheaded the interview, I came to even better understand that Jackie Robinson, Sharon’s father, was not only the man who broke baseball’s color barrier nearly 70 years ago, but he was also a man who was one of our country’s most influential figures off the field.
Here are a few samplings from the Robinson archives, as seen through the eyes of his daughter, who would later speak to a crowd of more than 400.
It was 1972, Game two of the World Series. Oakland at Cincinnati.
Jackie was on the field for a pregame ceremony to commemorate his 25th anniversary of breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Joining him was his family, including Sharon, a senior at Howard University. Jackie spoke briefly, imploring Major League Baseball to have black managers, threw out the first pitch to Reds catcher Johnny Bench and received quite an ovation from the crowd.
But that was not the most memorable part of Sharon’s day.
That happened earlier while sitting in their seats at Riverfront Stadium when she and her brother, David, peppered their dad with questions about his baseball past.
“It was quite a moment,” she said.
It was then that Sharon and David heard from their father – for the first time – about the racist taunts and bigotry that characterized his early years with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“It wasn’t that my dad was reticent to answer,” she said. “We hadn’t asked him these questions before.… It was even more special, because my dad chose that moment (during the pregame ceremony) to not just say thank you and take his bows, but again to say it’s great that 25 years later the field is integrated, but we still don’t see any African-Americans and black people in management.”
Upon reflection, Sharon said that the only surprising thing about that exchange more than 40 years ago was that her father “didn’t tell it back in a painful way.
“It was factual, he was happy to share, but not, ‘This is the worst thing that happened in my life.’ He really felt his most difficult challenge was his diabetes. It was something he had no control over, or limited control.”
Nine days after being honored that day in Cincinnati, Jackie died. He was 53 years old.
Sharon attended the March on Washington in 1963 with her family. Jackie and Martin Luther King Jr., had great respect for each other in those days and the men did some civil rights marches together. In fact, the Robinson’s later hosted jazz concerts at their Connecticut home for King’s organization and “specifically for bail money for jailed civil rights workers.”
“(Jackie and King) didn’t come to differences until it came to the Vietnam War,” Sharon said. “At that point, my father had a son who was in the war and he was speaking as a father. He wanted the soldiers to feel they were there for a reason. Dr. King wanted us to come out of the war.
“Both men were correct. I think it was unfortunate that they even had to have a public discussion about that. I personally wish they could have talked about it quietly and not shared their differences on it. My father was always very vocal, as was Dr. King.”
Sharon and her mother, Rachel, took part in Mariano Rivera Day last September in which the iconic relief pitcher of the New York Yankees was honored in his final home game at Yankee Stadium.
Rivera, the only Major League player to still wear Jackie’s uniform number (42) after it was retired in 1997, is a man Sharon reveres.
“I’ve been to many retirement parties, but this was absolutely incredible,” she said. “It just showed the love that baseball had for the man. They really respected and loved Mariano Rivera. It was incredible to be there with his family. … The Yankees went all out. … It couldn’t have been a more beautiful day for both families.”
When Sharon was a young girl and living with her family in Stamford, Conn., she attended a day camp where she was the only African-American. The kids all knew who her father was. Heck, Jackie had even supplied the campers with tickets to see a Dodgers’ game.
One rainy day, the kids were shown a movie. “The Jackie Robinson Story,” in which Jackie played himself.
“We came in, the (movie) reel started rolling and Jackie Robinson comes up on the screen,” Sharon recalled. “I was mortified.”
“It was the first time I had a visual of the racism, see the name-calling and the backlash for him entering baseball. I didn’t know what that meant to my world. It turned my world upside down. That was my first challenge.”
Although confused, Sharon didn’t return home and ask her parents about the movie she had seen.
“It really took years for me to understand. That’s why that 1972 (World Series game in Cincinnati) was so important. That was sort of my beginning of that period of what my father contributed to race relations and American history. That whole process continued and it continues today.”
The interview was over, we said our goodbyes. The question-and-answer session lasted exactly 24 minutes, 56 seconds. It was better than any history lesson I’d ever received.
Thank you, Sharon.
Thank you, Jackie.