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Robinson’s wife a guiding light

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NEW YORK — Rachel Robinson sits near the desk in a spacious corner office now inhabited by the foundation that bears her famous husband’s name.

Stacked on ceiling-to-floor shelves that cover the far wall are books, largely written about Jackie Robinson, and various awards. The picture window offers a view two floors below to Varrick Street, which was once a warehouse district in Manhattan’s lower west side.

The foundation was established 35 years ago, a year after Jackie Robinson died from complications of diabetes at the age of 53. On the eve of the 61st anniversary of Robinson shattering the sport’s racial barrier when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, she is asked to define the inspiration behind founding the non-profit entity.

“Education,” she tells during a rare and wide-ranging interview, “because I feel, and all of the founders felt, that education is the key to a decent and full life. If we’re talking about developing leaders, we have to educate them. We see the results, because they’re tangible. These children come to us as raw material and leave us ready to take positions in society.”

The nearly 86-year-old diminutive, but powerful widow is on a brutal pace of appearances that will conclude Tuesday with a tour of the nearly constructed entry to Citi Field, called the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, and later the focal anniversary celebration staged prior to the Mets game against the Nationals.

The new Mets home is slated to open in 2009 and replace Shea Stadium, which is in its 45th and final season. The Mets are the expansion stepchild of the Giants and Dodgers, who both fled to the west coast after the 1957 season leaving their ballparks — the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field — to the whims of the wrecking ball.

Jackie Robinson played his first game in Flatbush on April 15, 1947, after starring in four sports at UCLA — football, baseball, basketball and track. He was always bullish on education, says Rachel Robinson, who owns an undergraduate degree from UCLA and a Master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from New York University. But there was never any discussion of setting up a foundation in his name before he passed.

“We talked about education a lot,” she recalls. “But he never would have thought of [the foundation]. Seeing him on the field you wouldn’t know it, but he was really a very humble person. He would have never thought of saying that, ‘you need to set up any sort of thing to memorialize me.’ That wasn’t part of his thinking.”

She has been educating young, underprivileged adults ever since and raising money to put them through school. Though she has handed over the day-to-day operations of the foundation to Della Britton Baez, its president, her influence is still felt all over the organization.

“It’s got to be tough for the founder to let go,” Britton Baez says. “But in every way she has been very gracious and wise. She certainly has stepped up in the area of fund raising. When somebody wants to meet Rachel, she’s there.”

To that end, on Tuesday, Major League Baseball offered a helping hand by donating $1.2 million over four years to pay for college scholarships.

Each scholarship awarded by the foundation — 271 of them right now to underprivileged minority kids attending 93 colleges and universities — cost $10,000 on an annual basis. The foundation is also granting graduate fellowships and sending students overseas, “because the world is global now and they have to learn how to deal with it,” Rachael Robinson says.

MLB’s 30 teams will sponsor a scholarship a year, totaling $300,000 per annum for the next four years. That’s in addition to 11 teams that on their own have donated or have committed to donations, including long-time support from the likes of the Mets, Yankees, White Sox and Dodgers. The Los Angeles edition of Jackie Robinson’s team is in the midst of a 10-year, $105,000 a year commitment.

Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ captain and shortstop, remains the lone Major League player who sponsors a $10,000 a year scholarship.

Rachel Robinson says she’s proud of MLB’s long-term commitment to the foundation — $10 million in aid since 1996 — and its attempts at wooing African American children back to playing the game.

Like the black community in Memphis where MLB has staged its first two Civil Rights Games at the close of Spring Training, she’s concerned about the drop off in African American players at the Major League level.

In the decade after her husband jumped over the color line and scores of fine players flooded in from the Negro Leagues, the participation of blacks in the Majors rose as high as 27 percent. It’s now at 8 percent, precluding blacks of Latin American descent.

“I know they have the resources,” Rachel Robinson says about MLB. “I know they have the resources and an internal pressure within the organization to do something about it. It’s not for me to say, nor should I say, what they should do. You have to analyze the problem and then after you analyze the problem you have to say, ‘Where do we start?’ And get going. You can’t just ring your hands and say it’s an insoluble problem.”

The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, the Compton, Calif., Youth Academy and the Breaking Barriers essay program are all significant and necessary efforts. But it shouldn’t stop there, she added, noting that there are many more avenues for black athletes to take toward professional sports these days than there were when her husband was in his formative stage.

In the 1940s, pro football wasn’t open to blacks, the National Basketball Association wasn’t established until 1947, and track was purely an amateur sport, leaving baseball as Jackie Robinson’s only viable outlet.

“Now, there’s a lot of competition for their interests, but at least baseball is getting going,” she says. “We’ve talked to [Commissioner] Bud Selig and [MLB president] Bob DuPuy and we know they’re concerned about the problem. They’re not looking the other way at all. We know that, considering the Commissioner’s background, this is a very significant issue for him. It’s complicated, as all such issues are, but the things they’re doing are all important and attractive ways to re-engage the black community.”

Re-engaging the young African American community in baseball, though, is not really Rachel Robinson’s prime focus. Educating them is. Since its inception, the foundation boasts a phenomenal 97 percent graduation rate, about twice the national average for minority students. And under her guidance, more than 1,100 of the foundation’s charges are now active in the professional community.

She loves them all, she says, but she’s worried and saddened about the attrition rate of minority students at every level of education. At present, as many as 50 percent of minority students are dropping out of inner city primary and secondary schools.

“Oh, the lack of support for public education is very, very troubling,” she says. “The failure of kids to graduate even from high school is very troubling. There are a lot of problems.”

The foundation, she is aware, is certainly doing its part, but it can always do more. The great man himself would want it that way.

“If Jack’s looking down now,” she says, “I’m sure he’s proud.”



Written by Symphony

April 16, 2008 at 2:50 pm

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