by Mark Jent
He was born 100 years ago today in south rural Georgia; one of five kids born into a family of sharecroppers. His mother would recount years later that as a boy she would whisper in his ear, “Bless you my boy. For you to survive all this, God will have to keep his eye on you.” His father made twelve dollars a month working the Sasser’s farm outside Cairo. The family grew as did the injustices that surrounded them in the community full of racial tensions. When this baby boy was six months old, his father left the family, leaving a single mother to raise five kids all on her own. Determined, strong-willed and dedicated in her walk with God, his mother took a step of faith and boarded her family on what she would later call the Freedom Train and bought one way tickets to California. As she stepped off that train in Pasadena in May of 1920 to start a new life, little did she know that she was carrying a baby boy who would change the nation. His name was Jackie Robinson.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson overcame obstacles from an early age, which helped shape and mold him into the man he would become. Carried across the country on a train to escape the volatile south, his most formative years were spent growing up in a mostly white neighborhood in Pasadena where racial insults were thrown his way like a fastball high and tight. As a teenager he was a member of the Pepper Street Gang, a group of blacks, hispanics and asians who were mischiefs and always up to no good. As his reputation began to precede him with local law enforcement, there were two men who stepped in to fill the void in Jackie’s fatherless home – a preacher and a car mechanic. Reverend Karl Downs and mechanic Carl Anderson noticed that Jackie had potential and didn’t want to see him throw it all away. Fortunately for both Jackie and all of us who now can learn from and reflect on his legacy, Downs and Anderson were able to successfully redirect him in making better decisions.
Jackie went on to graduate from John Muir High School before becoming a decorated athlete at UCLA in football, basketball, baseball and track. Believe it or not, baseball was not even his best sport.
I could go on about his professional accomplishments as a baseball player and civil rights leader, but others have already done that so much better than I could in countless books, newspapers and websites. At the end of this piece, you will see where I will link to a few recommended readings if you are clamoring for more.
Jackie Robinson passed away at the age of 53 in October 1972, five years before I was born. Other than the commonalities of being born in the south, both loving Jesus and both enjoying the game of baseball, our lives could not be more different. Despite the stark contrast, I have long appreciated his legacy, admired his courage and drawn inspiration from his journey.
When I worked at Lipscomb University (2003-2017), we moved in to a new building in 2006 and I found myself with a new office and sizable upgrade from the closet-office I had before. As I began to fill the walls and bookshelves of my new office with various pictures, books and bobbleheads, I knew there was a picture I wanted to get framed. It would hang on my office wall so I would see it first thing each morning as I started my work day. It was a picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home in May 1952 versus the Chicago Cubs. It was just another baseball game, but it was not just another picture. Jackie was known to be a fearless competitor on the basepaths as he stole home 19 times throughout his career, which is tied for second all-time. I wanted to see that picture every day to remind me of this – that to steal home plate you have to be determined, courageous, fearless and relentless as you barrel down the 90 feet of base paths between third base and your destination. That picture would remind me that sometimes you get stuck on third base unless you take a chance. Stealing home is one of the most exciting and unexpected plays in all of sports. Jackie may have stolen home 19 times, but he was also tagged out 12 times. There was never a guarantee of success. As our office mobilized hundreds of students a year on missions to serve others across the country and around the world, that framed picture of Jackie Robinson stealing home on my office wall often inspired me to take chances when it didn’t make sense.
As my baseball adventures have taken me near and far in recent years, I have found myself continually being drawn to his story. In January 2016 I took my first trip to Brooklyn. Before the trip, I researched and customized my own self-guided tour of significant sites of Brooklyn Dodgers history. It was a 10 stop tour that took nearly four hours to complete, some driving and some walking. I found myself in a time machine of nostalgia at each stop along the way.
I stood on the sidewalk where the building that housed the Brooklyn Dodgers front offices once stood and where, on August 28, 1945, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to his contract to become a member of the franchise. When I stood on the hallowed grounds at the site of Ebbets Field, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be there on April 15, 1947 when #number 42 crossed the white chalk lines and forever changed the course of baseball history. As I sat on the steps of the house where he lived for three years between 1947-49, I tried to imagine what it must have felt like each morning when heto walked down those same steps and began his trek to work knowing that the barrage of insults were coming. Ironically, it just so happened that the final stop of the tour took us to Cypress Hills Cemetery where he is laid to rest. I’m not a grave-chaser of famous people, but to me this was not just anybody. It was the grave of a man who had a vision to change the landscape of a country, and he did it. As I stood there with my brother and best friend paying our respects at the foot of his snowy grave, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for his wife Rachel back in ‘72 to have lost her husband and soulmate at such a young age. Unimaginable. She has continued to carry his legacy in a multitude of ways including months after his death, Rachel would launch the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which has sent thousands of young people to college on scholarship over the past 45 years.
This self-guided tour of Brooklyn was meaningful, but there have been other moments along my recent baseball journeys that have been equally significant.
- July 2015. I met his daughter Sharon Robinson at the MLB All-Star Fanfest in Cincinnati before she spoke to a crowd about her father’s legacy. We spoke for five minutes, took a picture and she kindly obliged my request to sign a baseball.
- February 2017. I drove to Anderson, Indiana, and had a three hour breakfast with his teammate and good friend Carl Erskine. Erskine would recount the story of when he first met Jackie at spring training in 1948 when he came up to a young 21 year old Erskine and said, “It won’t be long until you’re up here for good.” A few months later when he was called up to the big league club, Jackie was the first person to greet him in the clubhouse. They would go on to develop a friendship that lasted long after their playing career was over up until Jackie’s death. Today, Erskine is 92 years old and one of only 21 living Brooklyn Dodgers still with us.
- October 2017. During the Dodgers-Cubs Game 5 of the NLCS in Chicago, I met a Wrigley Field usher who recounted a story of “being here back in ‘48 and watching Jackie play second base right over there,” as he pointed to second base.
- July 2018. During my first visit to the Citi Field, I found myself in awe of how the Mets have memorialized him with the Jackie Robinson Rotunda upon one’s entrance to the ballpark.
In a nation where racial divisions and injustices still exist, his legacy continues to grow and his story continues to be told. As we celebrate Jackie Robinson’s centennial birthday, I encourage you to consider how you can make a difference in your house, in your workplace, in your neighborhood, in our county and in the world. His quote that has become his trademark and is engraved on his tombstone says it best,“A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.”
Below is a snapshot of stories celebrating and honoring Jackie’s 100th birthday.
- Remembering Jackie at 100, all year long – by Richard Justice, MLB.com
- Jackie Showed Me How to Fight On, Not Fight Back – by Claire Smith, New York Times
- His Daughter Says Celebrate – by William Rhoden, The Undefeated
- 100 Photos of an Icon – by Eric Moskowitz, New York Times
- Jackie Robinson at 100: A Voice Heard – by David Cohen, Politico
July 2018. The Jackie Robinson Rotunda at Citi Field.
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Mark Jent is the chief trip planner and designated storyteller for Simply A Fan. He lives in Nashville with his wife Beth, and their three kids, Brooklyn, Harrison and Zach. He enjoys cheering on his Dodgers, reading baseball history, hiking at Radnor Lake and chasing waterfalls throughout Tennessee with his family. He launched Simply A Fan in July 2018 with the two-fold purpose of taking people on adventures to ballparks across the country and providing fans a platform to share their baseball stories. He is currently on a quest to meet as many of the living Brooklyn Dodgers as possible.