He fondly recalls sitting next to Mrs. Robinson at the 1996 Baseball Writers Association of America dinner in New York, set to receive his Rookie of the Year Award, and having the opportunity to start a relationship that has lasted to this day.
On this Jackie Robinson Day, Jeter again plans to accept the opportunity to honor the barrier-breaking legend by donning his No. 42 for the Yankees as they play against the Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla. He recently joined MLB.com for an exclusive Q&A in which he discussed Robinson's life, his achievements and the legacy he left on the game for generations to come.
MLB.com: How has Jackie Robinson's legacy influenced and inspired you?
Jeter: Being African-American, he was one of the first players I learned about. Obviously I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for his legacy, but more importantly for me, it's the relationship that I've built up with his daughter and wife throughout the years. Getting to know them and how special they are just goes to show how special he had to be.
MLB.com: When and how did you first learn about Jackie's accomplishments?
Jeter: Through my dad when I was young. I was always a baseball fan, so I learned when I was really young. It was probably through conversation first, but I can't be really sure, because it was a long, long time ago. As you get older, you start reading up on it and really learning the whole story.
MLB.com: You've always been an even tempered player on the field. But can you imagine the self-control it would have taken to do what Jackie did under those circumstances? How would you have approached it?
Jeter: I can't imagine it because I don't think anyone would relate to it. Being the first, I'm sure he went through things that people couldn't even imagine. So, no, I can't imagine what he went through. It says even more about him as a person. I don't know how I could have handled it. I think the best way to put it is that I really don't know, because you don't know what scale it was. You hear stories and you can try to imagine what it was like, but until you're in someone's shoes and in someone's situation, it's kind of hard to say how you would deal with it. You'd like to think that you'd deal with it the same way he did, but you don't know. Who knows if anyone is strong enough to do that?
MLB.com: Jackie's breaking barriers legacy is so great that his athleticism and talent on the field are sometimes overlooked. A four-sport letterman at UCLA, he could have starred at several sports. What impresses you most about his athletic achievements?
Jeter: On the field, people don't realize that a lot of it is mental. There's so much that goes into it. Of course you have to be physically talented and gifted, but mentally you have to deal with adversity. You're talking about adversity while you're playing, and then you're dealing with things away from the field that no one else has to deal with. I think how strong he was mentally is probably the one thing that sticks out the most.
MLB.com: Jackie stole home 19 times in his career. Why do you think that play has disappeared in the game?
Jeter: I would say probably because pitchers nowadays pay more attention to baserunners than they did in the past. I'm not taking anything away from Jackie stealing home 19 times, but now I think there's so much attention to detail in terms of slide-steps and things like that, whereas, in the past, I don't know if they did that that much.
MLB.com: Last year, Ken Griffey Jr. asked the Commissioner if he could wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day and the idea quickly gained steam with other players around the league. Do you think it's something that should be done each year? Why?
Jeter: Anything that draws attention to what Jackie was able to do is a positive thing. Anytime you can draw attention to what he stood for, what he did and what he went through in a positive light -- I think it should be celebrated every year.
MLB.com: You've been a strong supporter of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, established by his widow, Rachel, 35 years ago. Why is that so important to you?
Jeter: It's important because, one, they've done a lot of great things. Their foundation has done so many good things for the community. For me personally, it's given me the opportunity to know Mrs. Robinson throughout the years, and if you haven't had an opportunity to talk to her, you should. I think everything they stand for is just great, and I'm honored to be associated with them.
MLB.com: What has your friendship with Rachel meant to you over the years?
Jeter: You know, I first met her at the Baseball Writers dinner in 1996 in New York, and I had an opportunity to talk to her. She sat right next to me that day, the day I received my Rookie of the Year award. Throughout the years, she's been to the Turn 2 Foundation dinner in the past and we've honored her, and her daughter, Sharon, as well. It's great because she's a wonderful person.
MLB.com: The percentage of African-Americans in baseball has been declining in recent years. What do you think are the contributing factors and what can baseball do to generate more African-American players and fans?
Jeter: It's unfortunate. In some ways, I think other sports have done a great job marketing their games and I think baseball has taken steps forward in doing that the last couple of years. Then again, I also think that kids nowadays look at football players and basketball players in college, and then the next day you turn on your TV and they're in the NFL or the NBA. In baseball, there's the Minor Leagues and you've got to do all that. I think there's more attention paid to the other sports. Even the [MLB] Draft was only televised for the first time last year, so maybe that will help. But I think kids nowadays look at guys going from high school to the NFL or NBA and it looks like an easier route. Baseball can continue to market. They're doing some great things in the inner cities and RBI and those kinds of things. I think they just have to bring awareness to the sport, that's the biggest thing. They've got to get kids excited about playing baseball.
MLB.com: What would you say to Jackie if you could speak to him today?
Jeter: I probably wouldn't talk too much. I'd probably ask him about how he was able to deal with those things, how he was able to block things out. I think it'd be more off-the-field questions than on-the-field questions. Everybody could learn a lot from him if they listened.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.