by Ron Rabinovitz
It was June 1953 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I was eight years old and finishing third grade. Summer was near, so there was excitement around the neighborhood for the weeks ahead. I came home from school one day, and what I found in the mail that afternoon still influences me 65 years later.
I soon couldn’t believe my eyes. Before I opened the letter, I ran into the kitchen to tell my Mom who it was from. Having retrieved the mail that day, she already knew! It was a handwritten letter from Jackie Robinson. Yes, the Jackie Robinson, who was the all-star second basemen for my favorite team, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little did I know that what I was reading would be the first of many letters from Jackie, the beginning of a nearly 20-year friendship that began with us merely being pen pals.
My father had become a Brooklyn fan in 1947, when the Dodgers made Jackie the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. My father passed his love of the Dodgers on to me, teaching me from a young age how important that decision was for baseball and America. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I received that first letter from Jackie Robinson because my father had written him specifically asking if he would send me a letter saying “hello.”
Jackie not only fulfilled my father’s request. Two months later, in August, our family drove 50 miles from Sheboygan to see the Dodgers play the Milwaukee Braves. After the game, I made my way near the Dodgers clubhouse and found myself along with dozens of other kids hollering at the players, pandering for a handshake or an autograph. Jackie emerged from the locker room and the pandemonium began!
With the encouragement of my father, I said “Jackie, I’m Ronnie Rabinovitz, do you remember me?” Much to my surprise he said “Yes, your dad is the one who wrote me a letter and I wrote you back. Stay in touch.”
That night, I went home and wrote him a letter and mailed it to – Jackie Robinson, Stanford, CT – no address, no zip code. He wrote me back – Ronnie Rabinovitz, Sheboygan, WI – no address, no zip code. That was how mail was delivered back then. This follow-up letter from Jackie invited our family to visit when the Dodgers returned to Milwaukee in September for a three-game weekend series.
So we did. It was then that we became more than pen pals. Jackie invited us to lunch or dinner before or after the games that weekend. Wow, I was in baseball heaven! Jackie Robinson had become my friend! He was more than just #42.
How could this be? I was a Jewish boy from Wisconsin growing up in a Democrat family; Jackie was a Christian man from California, campaigning for Republicans!
We stayed in touch that winter. In 1954, we went to Milwaukee every time Brooklyn played the Braves that season. The letters continued, as did the visits before and after games.
I was living a boy’s baseball fairy tale.
After a game in 1955, when Jackie came out of the locker room, he waved me into the clubhouse. I froze when I saw the sign ahead, even though we’d all seen it many times before.
“Warning: Trespassing is Illegal.”
As Jackie waved me to come in, I immediately thought “I’m going to jail!.” Jackie sensed I was terrified and assured me that wouldn’t happen. I was his guest. He grabbed a brand-new ball and took me around locker to locker to meet every single player and get their signatures.
There was shortstop Pee Wee Reese, outfielder Duke Snider, catcher Roy Campanella and pitcher Sandy Koufax, all future Hall of Famers. There was the great first baseman, Gil Hodges, too. These were the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, who won their only World Series that October, later immortalized in Roger Kahn’s 1972 best-seller, The Boys of Summer.
I met them all!
After I left, I realized that Jackie had been so busy helping me that he forgot to sign the ball himself! That baseball is still one of my most prized possessions.
Out of all my visits, September 8, 1955 stands above them all. It was my 10th birthday and wouldn’t you know it, the schedule had the Dodgers playing in Milwaukee! As luck would have it, Jackie hit a homerun that day and while rounding third base, he looked at me in the stands as if to say “That was for you kid.” After the game, he joined us at Eugene’s Restaurant in Milwaukee for my 10th birthday party. It’s true! Jackie Robinson came to my birthday party! Fortunately, my parents had pictures taken to document the evening.
The next season, after he misplayed a ball playing left field (in Milwaukee), Jackie let me know “I’m going to tell you a secret, this will be my last year in baseball.” Sure enough, it was. I was devastated. I thought that I would never see him again. Nothing could have been farther from the truth.
After he retired following the ‘56 season, we stayed in touch with an occasional letter and phone call. I called him in 1962, the day he was voted in to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to congratulate him. I was still only a teenager at the time, but I understood the significance of the moment. Later in the ‘60s, when I was a sales rep, when I would travel to New York City, we would get together over lunch or dinner. Jackie was always generous with his time. In the spring of 1972, about six months before he died, after we’d finished a lunch, I helped him to the street to hail a cab. With tears running down my face, I gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek, then, put him in a cab knowing that it would be the last time I would ever see him. Although he was only 53, his health was in rapid decline due to a heart attack and diabetes. He passed away on October 24, 1972, just nine days after he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Game 2 of the World Series in Cincinnati.
I always reflected fondly on my friendship with Jackie. Years later in 1987, as I was rummaging through my parents’ attic, I found an old, dusty cigar box. Inside was a priceless treasure. It was all of my letters from Jackie that we had exchanged when I was a boy, each one neatly folded and in great condition some three decades later.
A wave of nostalgia rushed over me as I sat there numb, reading letter after letter. I had not seen them in years!
Now a grown man with children, I understood that what was in my possession were more than just letters to me, Ronnie Rabinovitz the boy from Sheboygan. What I had were treasures that told the story of a friendship between a boy and an American icon.
It was never my intention to “make a story” out of this discovery. I just wanted to let the world know of the Jackie Robinson I knew as a boy. But in April of ‘87, as MLB prepared to recognize the 40th anniversary of Jackie’s first game on April 15, 1947, the Chicago Sun-Times caught wind of my letters, interviewed me, and wrote a four-page story, which won the 1987 AP Best Public Interest Story.
Little happened with my story or the letters again until 1997, when, with MLB celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s first game, his widow Rachel was going to various ballparks on behalf of MLB, and came to a Minnesota Twins game at the Metrodome. Although I had grown close to Jackie all those years ago, I had never met Rachel. With young kids at home, she did not travel to Milwaukee with the team back in the ‘50s, and when he and I visited in New York in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, she was always at their home in Stamford, Conn. The Twins arranged for us to sit together during the game. I was taken back when she said, “Oh Ronnie, Jack loved you so much!” Those words mean so much to me coming from Rachel, as Jackie had been gone for 25 years at the time.
Following that, I would find myself speaking occasionally to a business or school group, but nothing significant. That changed in 2007, when USA Today’s Bob Nightengale contacted me for its front-page sports story leading up to the 60th anniversary of Jackie’s first game. Our story gained traction and momentum over the coming years, and I was happy to share it.
In 2012, on the 65th anniversary of Jackie’s first game, MLB Network aired “Letters From Jackie,” a documentary detailing our friendship. It was nominated for an Emmy Award.
In 2013, a playwright from Los Angeles was commissioned to write a play for The History Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., titled “The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz.”
Never in my wildest imagination would I have thought a letter to an eight-year-old boy would have a profound impact. As a friend once told me, “Yours is a story that only happens in dreams.”
Although the National Baseball Hall of Fame and other historical organizations have requested to borrow my letters, those 20 or so pieces of mail are tucked away in a safety deposit box. It has been my life’s joy to be able to tell the story of my friendship with Jackie Robinson. I hope that it will continue for years to come.
A young Ron Rabinovitz (right) with Jackie Robinson and his childhood friends in Milwaukee.
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Today Ron Rabinovitz lives with his family in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He works part-time for the Minnesota Twins, speaking to school groups up to 30 times a year at Target Field, where he gladly shares his story. He travels the country speaking to corporations, non-profit organizations and schools as he incorporates an inspiring message into his talks on diversity and inclusion as it relates to his Jackie Robinson story.
Ron’s story has been featured in numerous media outlets across the country including USA Today, CBS Evening News, ESPN, CBS Radio, National Public Radio, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Times. In 2013, Ron was interviewed by Larry King on his show Larry King Now. You can find that 16 minute interview here.
Ron has written a children’s book entitled “Always Jackie,” due for release in April 2020. For more information or to contact Ron, visit his website at ronrabinovitz.com.