"We give this great honor very rarely to people who have had a major impact on the sport," said Selig, upon announcing the award. "She'll be the first person to receive it for what she has done off the field. But she's made an enormous impact. Jackie had her to talk to in 1947 and '48 during those extraordinary years. Their participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Her work with the Robinson Foundation. She not only made baseball better, she made society better."
The honor came as a complete surprise to Major League Baseball's first female recipient since the award was established in 1998 to recognize moments, seasons or lifetimes of historical significance within the sport. It has been awarded now to 10 individuals and one team. Sunday, it was presented to Rachel Robinson, along with her son, David, daughter, Sharon, and grandson, Jesse, in the audience.
"This was a great surprise -- I wasn't tipped off," the game's grand lady said after accepting the 12-inch high trophy -- a gold baseball resting atop a silver base. "But it's also a great honor. I was brought up in baseball in my adult life and I'm very identified with the game and very proud with what we've done with the game."
The late Robinson broke in on April 15, 1947, played 10 years for the Dodgers, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and spent much of the remainder of his life working in the corporate world and fighting for civil rights issues.
Since Robinson's death at 53 years old, his widow has tirelessly worked for the foundation, which offers college scholarships to underprivileged minority students, and has continued her quest for the public to maintain a high level of awareness about her late husband's achievements.
The foundation, which was established in 1973, has flourished boasting a 97 percent graduation rate among those young men and women awarded college scholarships of $10,000 a year.
"We incorporated the Foundation a year after Jack passed," Rachel Robinson said. "That was a devastating time for us emotionally. It was a way for us to hold on to him. We wanted a living memorial and a living tribute."
The award was last presented posthumously to Pirates great Roberto Clemente at the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh's PNC Park. It had previously been given to Ichiro Suzuki, Roger Clemens, Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Jackie Robinson was honored Sunday in each of Major League Baseball's 10 ballparks with the focal point ceremony at Dodger Stadium prior to the game between the Dodgers and Padres.
His No. 42 was retired in 1997 by Selig's decree and was worn Sunday in memory of the fiery infielder by numerous players and full teams, including the Dodgers. It's the only number retired throughout MLB.