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Barry M. Bloom

Robinsons are great ambassadors for game

Bloom: Robinsons great ambassadors for game

Robinsons are great ambassadors for game
NEW YORK -- Sharon Robinson was only 6 years old when her famous father retired from baseball after the 1956 season. Consequently, she doesn't remember seeing him play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, nor does she recall him talking too much about the game and his career.

Later on, she learned to love baseball, and by the affection she was shown on the field at Yankee Stadium on Sunday night by New York middle infielders Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano, the feeling is mutual. Both gave Sharon and her mom, Rachel, big hugs as they joined several members of the Tuskegee Airmen in front of home plate before the Yanks trounced the Angels, 11-5.

It was the 65th anniversary of April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson shattered the color barrier in baseball forever by playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers at the now-long-gone Ebbets Field. The Yankees were the crowning jewel of 15 such ceremonies around the Major Leagues to commemorate the date on Sunday.

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"It was lovely," Sharon said about the ceremony. "I liked the way they brought mother and I right in with the Tuskegee Airmen and they had the players come out. I hadn't seen Derek in a couple of years, so I was thrilled that he and Robbie came out. It was a lot of fun. Mom loved it, too."

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If there is royalty in baseball, the Robinsons are it. They are the queen mom and daughter, carrying the spirit of the late Robinson, who passed away right after the World Series in 1972 from diabetic complications. With Major League Baseball's ample help, they've done a more than admirable job of keeping his legacy alive.

Commissioner Bud Selig started the ball rolling in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game against the Boston Braves when he proclaimed it Jackie Robinson Day and subsequently retired his legendary No. 42 throughout baseball. But he didn't stop there. MLB has tried to raise the appetite of young African-Americans to play baseball by investing in the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, and opening highly successful Urban Youth Academies in different areas of the country.

Selig often says that baseball has a social responsibility, and in this area he has proven it.

Sharon Robinson remembers a day some 15 years ago when young players had little knowledge of what her father and all the African-American baseball-playing pioneers did to liberate a professional game that had barred them from playing for almost the first half of the 20th century.

"It's very important to bring back up the history, and to think about how much we went through to get a fully integrated Major League Baseball," she said. "It does resonate, and it's important for young people to hear the story. I'm very happy that the players now feel that connected. Just think, in 1997, players were saying, 'Jackie, who?' So we've come a long way, when they feel like they're connected with the legacy."

Being the standard bearers of such a legacy is a weighty responsibility, Sharon Robinson said. There have been plays about her father. A new movie is being produced. The Jackie Robinson Foundation long has been funding scholarships for bright youngsters, giving them a real shot at careers and a future. The Foundation also has been trying to raise money for a Robinson Museum in a space set aside in lower Manhattan, but because of the recent slump in the economy that project is still at least about two years away from fruition, she said.

"It's a lot of work to keep someone's legacy alive," Sharon said. "You have to stay out there and keep pushing that issue. MLB has been a great help. I work for MLB, and we're looking at other ways to do it with media, making sure the current players are out there so kids are seeing them and recognizing their faces and are excited by them. This is a big part of the education process."

In his waning days as an active player, it was Ken Griffey Jr., who wrote a letter to Selig requesting that he be able to wear Jackie's number to honor him while playing on April 15. Selig found it to be a sound idea and gave Griffey permission, saying that it was voluntary if any other player, coach or manager also wanted to follow suit.

What began with that concept has now become widespread. Sunday was the fourth consecutive year it has been mandated that all uniform personnel wear No. 42. And from such disparate players as Denard Span of the Twins, Gregor Blanco of the Giants, Lorenzo Cain of the Royals, Dee Gordon of the Dodgers and Cano, Jeter and Curtis Granderson of the Yankees, there has been nothing but praise for the path that Robinson paved for minority players.

And on the immediate horizon, is the specter of basketball great Magic Johnson becoming the first high-profile African-American to be part of an ownership group, taking over an MLB team. That team, ironically enough, is the Dodgers, 65 years later breaking barriers all over again.

"I think it's exciting," Sharon Robinson said. "I think it's going to breathe some new life into the Dodgers organization. He'll be out there in the community, bringing back more fans to the ballpark. The team is doing great [9-1]. We're thrilled about that."

And the distance between her father and Magic?

"It's groundbreaking at both ends," she said.

Barry M. Bloom is 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.

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