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Robinson lives on in his letters

Robinson lives on in his letters

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COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- On the surface, an African-American Hall of Famer who played in Brooklyn and a Jewish man born and bred in Sheboygan, Wis., would seem to have little in common. Thanks to baseball, the two remain linked, even with 36 years having passed since the death of the man known as the game's greatest racial pioneer.

As baseball celebrates the 61st anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut with a variety of activities, a 62-year-old man contemplates a successful trek from his current home in Edina, Minn., to the birthplace of baseball in Cooperstown. Filled with enthusiasm and an intense recall of details, Ron Rabinovitz addressed a crowd of fans at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Monday afternoon, telling them about his unusual but meaningful relationship with Robinson. Rabinovitz will also address Museum visitors on Tuesday in the Hall of Fame's Bullpen Theater.

A few years after Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Rabinovitz's father, David, a lawyer and a believer in civil rights who lived in Sheboygan (about 60 miles north of Milwaukee), wrote him a letter of encouragement. Unbeknownst to the young Rabinovitz, David informed Robinson about his son, Ron, or Ronnie, as the family called him.

"There were no blacks in Sheboygan, but my dad told me a lot about Jackie Robinson," said Rabinovitz, whose father passed away in 1986. "He loved that the Dodgers signed Jackie. He said to me, 'How would you like to meet Jackie?'"

Robinson responded to the elder Rabinovitz by sending young Ronnie a letter, accompanied by an autographed black-and-white photo. Addressed to "my friend Ronald," the letter indicated that Robinson "would love to meet" the boy the next time the Dodgers traveled to Milwaukee to play the hometown Braves.

Robinson's words did not represent an empty promise. He would indeed meet the young boy during the Dodgers' next trip to Milwaukee. After the Dodgers finished a game against the Braves, Rabinovitz and a small horde of young fans waited outside of the players' entrance to the visitors' clubhouse at Milwaukee's County Stadium.

"I was one of about 50 kids outside of the clubhouse," Rabinovitz recalled with eagerness. "I shouted out to Jackie, 'I'm Ronnie Rabinovitz.' Jackie said he remembered my name. My father said, 'Sure, he remembered you.' But he did remember. He actually remembered that my father had written him a letter on lawyer stationery."

Thanks to that letter, Robinson would enjoy several encounters with the Rabinovitzes, dining with them on several occasions in Milwaukee. David and Jackie spent some of their dinnertime arguing politics -- David was a staunch Democrat and Robinson a firm Republican -- but that didn't affect Robinson's genuine friendship with the Rabinovitz family. After one particularly memorable dinner at Eugene's Restaurant in downtown Milwaukee, Robinson signed the back of his menu for young Rabinovitz.

In 1955, the nine-year-old Rabinovitz waited outside of the Dodgers' clubhouse at County Stadium. The door to the clubhouse opened, with Robinson emerging from the other side. He took Rabinovitz by the hand, led him into the clubhouse, grabbed a baseball out of a bag, and took the wide-eyed youngster from locker to locker. By the time that Rabinovitz and Robinson had completed their tour of the clubhouse, they had collected the autographs of Roy Campanella, Gil Hodges, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, and Duke Snider.


"Back when I started doing this, in 1987, not as many kids knew about Jackie. But now, it's a lot better. Now about 85 to 90 percent of the kids know about Jackie."
-- Ron Rabinovitz, on sharing his memories of
Jackie Robinson

"Jackie was so consumed getting the autographs of his teammates for me, that he forgot to sign the ball himself," said Rabinovitz with a laugh.

Robinson's initial letter to Rabinovitz represented the first of many. Robinson sent him approximately 20 letters, all handwritten. Because of the frequency of the letters, Rabinovitz developed a ritual of running home from school each day to check the mailbox. The letters often contained advice, while acknowledging the bond that had developed between the two.

"I had a weight issue. He struggled with that too," said Rabinovitz. "He wrote me about that, and always encouraged me."

On one occasion, young Rabinovitz wrote Robinson to tell him that he didn't want to attend summer camp, in part because of his weight problems.

"He wrote me back. He suggested I go to camp that summer. He said, 'You could learn a lot from an experience like that.'"

Giving strong consideration to Robinson's words of wisdom, Rabinovitz took part in the summer camp. Their correspondence led to future meetings in Milwaukee, often at the suggestion of Robinson. Those encounters only solidified the Hall of Famer's reputation with the overweight youngster from Middle America.

"Such a great guy, such a genuine guy," Rabinovitz said. "One time he was signing autographs in the parking lot at County Stadium. All of these kids came up to him. The guys on the team bus are yelling at him to get on the bus, so that they can go back to the hotel. So he went over to the bus driver and told him to go ahead. He would catch a cab back to the hotel. He wanted to stay and sign for all of the kids that were around him that day."

As their exchange of letters continued to grow, so did Robinson's trust in his young friend. "He even gave me his unlisted phone number in one of his letters," said Rabinovitz, who wasn't too shy to make use of the number. "I called him occasionally -- including once in 1962, to congratulate him on being elected to the Hall of Fame. He wasn't surprised to hear from me. He said, 'I thought you'd be calling me.'"

Rabinovitz and Robinson continued their correspondence until Robinson's death from a heart attack in 1972. While Robinson has been gone for more than three decades, the letters from him to Rabinovitz remain.

"I have all of them, or almost all of them -- I might have lost one or two along the way," said Rabinovitz. "They're all signed the same way, 'Always, Jackie.'"

Rabinovitz is now trying to complete the cycle by corresponding with youngsters about Robinson. Although he has no formal connection to baseball -- he works as a sales representative for a company that sells corrugated boxes -- he spends much of his free time touring schools in Minnesota.

"It started in 1987, with the 40th anniversary of Jackie's debut in the Major Leagues," said Rabinovitz. "I wanted to get involved and share the experiences I had with Jackie. I go wherever I can go -- to tell those stories."

Some students write Rabinovitz letters, to which he responds in kind, just as Robinson did with him so many years ago.

"I get hundreds and hundreds of letters," said Rabinovitz. "I try to write back to some of the kids. And I save them all."

Now Rabinovitz has taken the stories of his letters to a nationwide audience, culminating in his visit to Cooperstown on Monday and Tuesday.

"Back when I started doing this, in 1987, not as many kids knew about Jackie," Rabinovitz explained. "But now, it's a lot better. Now about 85 to 90 percent of the kids know about Jackie."

And now, a few visitors to Cooperstown know about the timeless relationship triggered by a caring father and sustained by an iconic Hall of Famer from Brooklyn who took an interest in a young kid from Wisconsin.

Bruce Markusen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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