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Robinson's legacy still reverberating

Robinson's legacy still reverberating

LOS ANGELES -- It is stacking up as quite a year for the memory of Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and his living friends and family.

Last month, under the marble dome of the Capitol Rotunda constructed when Abraham Lincoln was president, Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by the U.S. Congress to those who have never fought in the military.

And on Friday night, Dodger Stadium will be the main stage for this year's Jackie Robinson Day. It was 58 years ago to the day that Robinson broke MLB's color line when he stepped on the field to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. And it was 50 years ago this season that Robinson helped the Dodgers bring their only World Series title to Brooklyn.

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"Jackie Robinson was bigger than life," said Dodgers vice chairman Jamie McCourt, who attended the Gold Medal ceremony with her husband and co-owner, Frank. "He shattered baseball's color barrier, thrilled fans countless times, and changed the face of the nation. I know I speak for the entire Los Angeles Dodgers organization when I say that we are proud and honored that Jackie wore our uniform and plays a central role in our long and rich heritage."

Milton Bradley, the Dodgers center fielder, will have the honor of escorting Rachael Robinson, Jackie's widow, on to the field for the ceremony before the Dodgers play the Padres.

Bradley said he is thrilled to be taking part in the festivities, and can't fathom the abuse heaped on Robinson in the aftermath of the former four-sport UCLA star joining the Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

"He was the predecessor. He paved the way for everybody of color to play the game," Bradley said about Robinson. "He had the right frame of mind and the mentality, the guts to be the first. He was handpicked because he had the right demeanor to take all that abuse from fans and other players. I can't even imagine what he had to deal with.

"If he had failed, it might have been a long time before anyone else had gotten the chance."

Honoring those 1955 World Series winners is the Dodgers' major theme of the 2005 season. With Robinson in uniform, the then Brooklynites won six National League pennants in 10 seasons, but lost to the Yankees in 1947, '49, '52, '53 and '56.

The 1955 World Series had all the usual twists and turns, but this time it concluded in seven games with the Dodgers winning, ending a generation of Yankees dominance that only Red Sox fans can relate to.

"Please don't interrupt, because you haven't heard this one before. Brooklyn Dodgers, champions of the baseball world. Honest," penned legendary sportswriter Shirley Povich in the Washington Post after the Dodgers held off the Yankees, 2-0 in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium.

Robinson stole home late in Game 1 and Sandy Amoros made the catch of a slicing Yogi Berra line drive near the left field foul line at Yankee Stadium that saved the series in Game 7.

"That was a major thing for him, especially to beat the Yankees," Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, said about her late father.

Robinson, who was already 35 at the time, retired a year later rather than accept the indignity of his trade to the hated New York Giants. Two years later, Brooklyn's beloved Dodgers left for Los Angeles and Robinson regained his stride as a businessman and civil rights activist.

Robinson was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and even then, so many writers harbored resentment that his name appeared on only 77.5 percent of the ballots. Robinson needed his name written on 120 of the 160 ballots cast that year to get in. He got 124.

The Dodgers, who now have a tradition of retiring mostly the numbers of their Cooperstown inductees, waited until 1972 before retiring Robinson's No. 42. The ceremony was held at Dodger Stadium during Old Timer's Day festivities only four months before Robinson passed away. The Dodgers retired the numbers of three of their greats that day -- Robinson, Roy Campanella and Sandy Koufax -- making them the first players bestowed with that honor in club history.

"There is no question that Jackie holds a very special place in the heart and spirit of every member of the Dodger family," Jamie McCourt said.

It was Robinson's last visit to Dodger Stadium in an official capacity; ironically, the team didn't expect him to appear.

The Sporting News, in its obituary, noted that, "Robinson, whose top salary with the Dodgers was $42,500, surprised the Dodgers' management by showing up in Los Angeles for the ceremony."

"As my way of protest, I've stopped going to Old Timers' games," Robinson said at the time. "If it hadn't been for the good feeling I have for Don Newcombe, I doubt very much if I would have come to this one."

Newcombe, a pitcher who played with Robinson for six years, inclusive of the 1955 World Series winners, is a long-time member of the Dodger's community-relations department and will be in attendance at the event on Friday.

Robinson said back then that he "couldn't care less if someone out there is wearing No. 42."

"I get more of a thrill knowing there are people in baseball who believe in advancement because of ability," he said.

Ultimately, his number was retired by decree of Commissioner Bud Selig throughout baseball in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson joining the Dodgers.

Robinson's emergence not only ended the era of segregation in MLB, but he foreshadowed the civil rights movement that swept across the U.S. more than a decade later.

In his capacity as one of America's most vocal advocates, he was constantly critical of baseball's reluctance to hire minorities as managers, coaches and front office personnel. Frank Robinson was named MLB's first minority manger in 1975, almost three years after Robinson's death on Oct. 24, 1972, at the age of only 53.

Sharon Robinson said her father would've been proud of the Mets, who hosted last year's April 15 festivities at Shea Stadium, for hiring general manager Omar Minaya and manager Willie Randolph this past offseason.

Minaya became the first Hispanic general manager when he was named by MLB to guide the Montreal Expos in 2002, and Randolph is the first minority manager in New York baseball history.

"When you think of Jackie, that's what you want to see -- blacks and Hispanics moving into leadership within baseball," Sharon Robinson said. "It's one of the positive results and certainly part of his legacy."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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