Robinsons remembered in Pasadena

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Elementary school kids learning about Mack and Jackie.

PASADENA, Calif. — The day after Jackie Robinson Day, my wife, Alicia, and I decided to make a pilgrimage to see the giant, dark metal busts of Jackie and his older brother, Mack, on display in a park across the street from City Hall in old Pasadena.

The boys grew up there, playing sports and creating havoc after their mother yanked them out of rural Georgia to seek a better life, a move unheard of for a lone black woman in America after the first World War. If you want to know where Jackie inherited his famous guts it was from his devoted mom.

Our pilgrimage was apropos coming a day after the Dodgers finally announced that a statute in his honor would be erected at Dodger Stadium. This was so long in coming, his widow Rachel had given up hope it would ever happen. Rachel will be 93 this summer.

“How do I feel?” she said when asked to respond to the revelation. “I’ve been waiting, waiting for years and years.”

The current Dodgers ownership cannot be held responsible for this long transgression. The root of the issue dates back to the late Walter O’Malley, who despised everything Branch Rickey after a financial falling out between the two baseball greats too lengthy to detail here. Suffice to say Jackie is forever tied to Rickey, the man, who in 1945, signed him as the first African American of the 20th Century to a professional baseball contact.

For no apparent good reason, Robinson was not in the lineup for Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, the day the cries of “wait ’till next year” finally stopped from Brooklynites everywhere. He had played in Game 6 and in the entire series, batting .182

Back in 2005, I asked Rachel about this and she glibly responded: “I don’t know why Jack didn’t play. I really don’t know. That was 50 years ago, buddy.”  Don Newcombe, a pitcher on that team, thought Jackie might have had a sore Achillies. No way Robinson would have missed that game with a sore Achilles.  Walter Alston kept him on the bench and he’s not around to explain why.

A year later, O’Malley tried to trade Robinson to the hated New York Giants. Robinson had already taken a executive job with Chock full O’nuts, a famous New York eatery back then, and had sold his retirement story to a magazine. He purposefully didn’t tell O’Malley. When the deal went down Jackie simply refused to report. That winter, he unceremoniously returned quietly to the clubhouse at Ebbets Field to retrieve his things. The Dodgers fled to Los Angeles in 1957 and Robinson never saw the old yard again. Such was the state of animosity between Robinson and O’Malley.

Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. It took 10 years for the Dodgers to retire his famous No. 42. During that period, Robinson declined to attend most events and games at Dodger Stadium. Nearly blind from the ravages of diabetes, the relationship between Robinson and O’Malley had thawed enough for Robinson to attend the ceremony retiring his number during the summer of 1972. Only a few months later he was dead at 53.

It’s not as if Major League Baseball did anything, either, to recognize the man whose life was consumed with shattering the sport’s color barrier, beginning on April 15, 1947. The pursuit ate him up, physically. On the 25th anniversary of that event in 1972, there was barely a mention of it. No league-wide celebration generated by the owners or Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Only on the 50th anniversary in 1997 did baseball begin making up for lost time when Commissioner Bud Selig acted to universally retire his number. Now the Dodgers are doing the same, making up for lost time

That brings us back to this morning on a golden sunlit day in Pasadena. As I approached to take a few pictures, the busts of the Robinson brothers were surrounded by what appeared to be a class of fresh-faced elementary school students. Their teacher, a young Asian man, was asking them if anyone knew who Mack was. I approached from the rear and waited. There were no answers. When the teacher queried the children again I asked him if he wanted me to answer the question.

“Sure, since nobody else is,” he said.

“Well, Mack was Jackie’s older brother and a great athlete in his own right,” I said. “He was a track star and a great sprinter. In the 1936 Olympics at Berlin, Mack won the silver medal in the 200-meter race finishing just a split-second behind Jesse Owens, the gold medal winner. Jesse Owens went on to gain much fame. Do you know what happened to Mack?”

With that the entire group turned around and stared at me in anticipation.

“He came home to Pasadena and became a street sweeper.”

“That’s sad,” one of the little boys said.

Sad indeed. But Mack had a much calmer life. He died in 2000, at the age of 85, far outliving his heroic younger brother.

I felt pretty content with my contribution. But as I walked away, I heard the teacher say, “Now, can anyone tell me what the Olympics is? If you don’t know go home and ask your parents.”

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