MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

MLB stepping up to plate for Jackie's foundation

MLB stepping up to plate for Jackie's foundation

LOS ANGELES -- Three years ago, the now-retired Yankees captain Derek Jeter was the only active Major Leaguer to sponsor a college scholarship via the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Times have changed for the better.

Heading into Wednesday night's 68th anniversary of Robinson shattering the color barrier when he took the field at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field, there are 21 current and retired players sponsoring either full scholarships for Jackie Robinson Scholars or having made a sizable donation to the Foundation.

The list includes Michael Bourn of the Indians, Carl Crawford and Jimmy Rollins of the Dodgers, LaTroy Hawkins of the Rockies, Edwin Jackson of the Cubs, Adam Jones of the Orioles, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Melvin Upton Jr. of the Padres, David Price of the Tigers, CC Sabathia of the Yankees and Jerome Williams of the Phillies.

Retired players Orlando Hudson and Vernon Wells also underwrote scholarships, said Ricky Cleamons, the former MLB executive who has canvassed Major League clubhouses the past few summers signing up some of these players. Jason Heyward of the Cardinals, Torii Hunter of the Twins, Yu Darvish of the Rangers, former player and manager Dusty Baker and Brad Ziegler of the D-backs made donations as well. Like Jeter, Royce Clayton is a long-term contributor.

"I think it's a great foundation," Kemp said. "It's great to be a part of something that Jackie Robinson's name is on. They support a lot of college kids and help them do great things. I thought I'd lend a hand and support the cause."

Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, founded the foundation in 1973 after her husband passed away at 53 from the ravages of diabetes and heart disease. Since then, the organization has raised $65 million, $26 million earmarked in direct financial aid to 1,450 minority students across the U.S. The program has a 99-percent graduation rate, according to the foundation's website, and it has produced business executives, educators, attorneys and biochemists among its varied list of career professionals.

Any donor is asked to sponsor one student over the course of his or her four-year college career. The overall donation includes $24,000 or $6,000 per year in a college scholarship, according to information available on the website. Each player is given a folder with a detailed background of the student he's supporting.

"It's a chance for me to help somebody go to college, which I'm all for, although I never went to college because I was drafted," said Rollins, the former Phillies shortstop who's playing in his first year for the Dodgers. "Why not afford them the opportunity when I can? Between that and representing the Jackie Robinson Foundation, it was almost a no-brainer."

For years, though, the foundation has had little luck drawing donations from players in the Major League ranks despite trying to convey the organization's mission and goals. In stepped Cleamons, once the vice president of communications under Len Coleman Jr., the last formal president of the National League from 1994-99. Coleman remains an honorary chair of the Jackie Robinson Foundation's board of directors.

A few seasons ago, Rachel Robinson sent a letter to every African-American in the Major Leagues, introducing Cleamons and seeking their monetary help. From there, Cleamons began visiting clubhouses and talking to players about becoming donors. An adjunct college professor now, Cleamons has done that the past two summers when he's finished teaching for the spring semester. It has been no easy task, he said.

Cleamons didn't have to pitch Ziegler, a setup reliever for Arizona. The right-hander made an undisclosed donation to the foundation on his own because of his affinity for Robinson. Two years ago, when the D-backs were on a trip to play the Mets at Citi Field, Ziegler visited the foundation offices on the lower west side of Manhattan and met Rachel Robinson, her daughter, Sharon, and son, David.

"We had mutual friends who introduced us," Ziegler said. "And when we walked away from that meeting, we decided this was an organization we wanted to make a donation to. It's a one-time donation to help some people who haven't been blessed financially like we have. It was just a way to give back."

Ziegler said Robinson's story of courage and sacrifice is particularly poignant to him. Robinson had to endure so much rage and hate as he led a wave of African-American players into the Major Leagues, beginning with that now hallowed day in 1947. By the time he retired after the 1956 season, nearly all of the then 16 MLB teams were integrated. Robinson was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

"The more history you read, the more you realize the sacrifices people needed to make to get us to where we are today," Ziegler said. "From a baseball standpoint, the stuff that Jackie endured is incredible just to go out and play. The things that people would say to him were mind-blowing. It's hard for me to believe people thought that was OK.

"I always admired the fact that he was able to do it without fighting back and able to keep a calm head, even though inside he must have been just churning."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.