The growing legacy of Jackie Robinson

It happened that I arrived in Montreal, my new home, eight games before the baseball season ended in 1972. That gave me an opportunity to witness two historic events at Jarry Park — Bill Stoneman’s second no-hitter and, more significantly, Jackie Robinson’s last visit to his adopted city. In both cases, I watched from the stands, less than a year before covering my first Montreal Expos game.

Within a month, Robinson had died, at 53. He was revered in Montreal, where he auditioned as the first black major-leaguer-to-be. Every Robinson story, then and now, includes Montreal. They are forever connected.

Five years after that evening at Parc Jarry, there was a ceremony on a sunny day at Dodger Stadium to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the racist mould. He had played only for the Dodgers, all before they moved to Los Angeles, Robinson’s hometown. This was a pre-game event involving his widow, Rachel, and teammates Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.

Because the Expos were the visiting team, I was there. The ceremony was pre-game enough that only a few current players were in the dugouts. That surprised me. What shocked me was how few of the few were black, when the Expos had five who were, and the Dodgers had more. Had they forgotten?

How things have changed. Today, Jackie Robinson lives in perpetuity, as he should. Every April 15, having every major-leaguer wear 42 has made it the game’s most famous number. And as of last summer, there’s a museum in Manhattan, 14 long years in the making, to preserve his story for the ages, a story that can never be told enough, yet one that keeps growing.

“Isn’t it amazing,” my editor-at-home said on April 15, “that after all you’ve read about Jackie Robinson, you’re still learning?”

I’d just read about a white family in Connecticut, the Simons, who took in the Robinsons when racists shut them out of every home they considered purchasing, until they finally bought an empty lot and built a home. For a year and a half, five Robinsons and six Simons lived together. Richard, the father, was the co-founder of the publishing company Simon and Schuster. His daughter was Carly, the singer. Her mother Andrea and Rachel Robinson, now 100, stayed friends until Andrea died.

It all brings back memories for me.

Duke Snider, another teammate, once told me he roomed with Robinson. Snider had never had a black teammate, let alone a roommate. He recalled the first time they shared a room, looking over at this long, muscular, black body lying on the next bed.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” he said.

Eddie Liberatore was a long-time Dodgers scout I befriended while on, of all things, a small boat from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor. We stayed friends for years and in one of our frequent discussions, Eddie said baseball would be a game of three seismic events.

“Babe Ruth changed baseball forever,” he said. “Jackie Robinson changed baseball forever. And the next thing that will change baseball forever is when it becomes international.”

As you can see, that’s happening, step by step. Without ever meeting Jackie Robinson, I think he would embrace that.