Tracy Ringolsby

Q&A: Hawkins on Robinson's impact, legacy

Q&A: Hawkins on Robinson's impact, legacy

LaTroy Hawkins grew up in Gary, Ind. -- a steel town southeast of Chicago, where every day can be challenging. A star athlete in high school, Hawkins excelled in baseball, and he signed with the Minnesota Twins after turning down a scholarship to play basketball at Indiana State, which was obviously impressed with how he handled the challenges of players like Glenn Robinson during their prep days.

Hawkins retired as a player after the 2015 season, but he remains active in the game -- not only with the Minnesota Twins, but in working to open doors for African-Americans in baseball. Hawkins is the subject of this week's Q&A, and he discusses Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier 70 years ago Saturday when he made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Do you remember when you first became aware of Jackie Robinson?

Hawkins: My grandfather, who is 92 now, used to tell me about Jackie Robinson and all the guys that played in the Negro Leagues. My grandfather is from Mississippi, and he came up to the Midwest at a young age. He loved baseball, so he wanted to tell me about some of the guys that played the game that looked like us. Jackie Robinson is one of the first guys that he told me about. He told me the story about him being the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues. I got the story from somebody who actually watched him play and lived in that era. When did you finally start to realize this guy's bigger than baseball?

Hawkins: It didn't resonate with me until I actually started playing professional baseball and got to the Major Leagues and saw how big of an impact that Jackie Robinson had on the game that so many of us love so much. Just looking around and seeing the guys wearing number 42 and thinking about the guys who came before me who paved the way. If you sit back and reflect on that, the names at the top of the list are Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby. Not taking away from other people, but a lot of historians will say that he had more of an impact on integration in life than anybody, even more than Martin Luther King.

Hawkins: I think Branch Rickey did a great job picking the right guy. Going to the Negro Leagues [Baseball] Museum in Kansas City, talking with Buck O'Neil on numerous occasions and listening to him chat about the guys that he played with in the Negro Leagues, Jackie wasn't the best player. He was the most suited to deal with the adversity that he was going to have to deal with in the Major Leagues. That's why Branch Rickey picked him. He knew that he had the weight of the whole generation on his shoulders. He went out there with his head held high and he delivered for us. He changed the game. He changed America. When you hear stories about what he had to go through, is it sometimes hard to fathom that people had to live in that type of a world?

Hawkins: With my grandparents, I had a good understanding of the times that they grew up in. I understood the hatred that went on back then and we still have some today. I've talked to my grandfather about him being around Caucasian people and his name was never Eddie. He was always "the little 'N' boy." The good thing about him, he doesn't hold any ill will. I think that helps for the healing when you don't hold any grudges against people. With that type of an understanding from your youth, I would assume that makes what Jackie was able to accomplish even more significant. You've had a little bit of a background as to what it was really like.

Hawkins: Yes. The hatred that was going on in our country. Then the hatred that was going on toward any particular baseball game, one human being. Jackie opened doors beyond baseball.

Hawkins: He opened the doors all around the world. Did he even know what he was doing at the time? I don't know. But he did have a great way of thinking. He was very educated. He understood how to deal with people. No matter how you treated him, he knew how to deal with you. One of his favorite quotes is, "A life is not important except for the impact you have on other lives." He didn't say it's whether you're white or black or green or yellow. He said, "On other lives." That meant everybody. Every human being. So with that being said, that lets you know what he stood for. He was the right person to change professional sports. His daughter Sharon has to be awful proud of him.

Hawkins: Sharon is extremely proud of her dad. The first of July, Sharon, myself and Scott Erickson are heading over to Romania, because Romania wants to honor her father for the 70th year since he broke the color barrier. Everything that he had instilled in him, he definitely put into Sharon. But then he didn't realize how much of an impact he would have on life, not just baseball, did he?

Hawkins: No. No. He set out to do it because Branch Rickey gave him an opportunity. And, he knew that there were a lot of ball players who played in that Negro Leagues who deserved a chance to play against some of the best Caucasian players in the world. He knew he had to be on his best behavior, which is the craziest thing ever. When you're growing up, he had to be on his best behavior no matter what people screamed at him, or said to him, or threw on him. He had to be on his best behavior at all times, because he knew the fact that his success in Major League Baseball determined whether those other guys he played in the Negro Leagues with got a chance. One misstep, and …

Hawkins: It's "We told you they're going to act like animals." And with some of the things that happened to him, he had the right to act like an animal. Animals were treating him like an animal. That dude was incredible. He was absolutely amazing. You see why Branch Rickey picked him. We give a lot of credit to Jackie, because he went through a lot. But Branch Rickey had a lot. He took a lot of flak for what he did. But he was brave. With Rickey, it had to be a social- justice thing, because it's not like you were trying to get these wealthy people to come to the ballpark, right?

Hawkins: He did it because he felt it was the right thing to do.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.