Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on this day, January 31, 1919, 98-years ago.
He grew up to become the most important black man in American history and its greatest athlete.
Before MLK, Jr., there was Jackie; before Selma, there was Jackie; before Thurgood Marshall served on the Supreme Court, there was Jackie; before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Jackie, and before President Truman desegregated the military, there was Jackie.
At UCLA, Jackie starred in football, basketball, and baseball; in addition, he held the NCAA broad jump record.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues, becoming its first black player.
Last Friday, the Boston Red Sox held their 15th annual celebration of Jackie’s life with assemblies at East Boston and Charlestown high schools.
Six hundred and fifty students attended the two programs, whose purpose is to inform young people of Robinson’s place in American history.
When John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino took ownership of the Red Sox in 2002, a commitment was made to change the culture of a team with a known racist history, since the Red Sox were the last club in the major leagues to play a black player, Pumpsie Green, 12 years after Robinson..
It was the new ownership’s idea to create a special remembrance of Robinson, who had a tryout with the Red Sox in ’45 – a bogus tryout to pacify a liberal Boston City Council member – and settled on a birthday tribute.
In the beginning of its tributes the Red Sox invited students to Fenway Park to learn of Robinson (either on or before his birthday), before deciding to take their celebrations on the road to Boston area schools, and once to Springfield in western Massachusetts.
Those invited to tell their stories about Robinson, include his daughter, Sharon, an author, and her brother, David, a coffee grower in Tanzania; Della Britton Baeza, president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, biographers Scott Simon of NPR, and Pat Williams of the NBA’s Orlando Magic, and Roger Kahn, who wrote “The Boys of Summer,” a book about the Dodgers in Brooklyn.
But last Friday that story belonged to Ray Flynn, who was elected three times as mayor of Boston, before accepting President Clinton’s invitation to become America’s ambassador to the Vatican.
When I asked Ambassador Flynn if he would participate in the Red Sox Robinson celebration, he told me he would, because, he said, he had personal stories to share. I had no idea what that stories might be.
Here’s the story Ambassador Flynn told:
He was a kid of 10, whose work experience included filleting fish at Boston harbor, shining shoes, and selling the Boston Record-American at Fenway Park and Braves Field.
The newspaper sold for three cents, and Flynn said patricians outside the ball parks would hand him a nickel, and wait for their two cents in change; but in the bleachers, he said, fans would also hand him a nickel and say, “Keep the change, kid.”
On May 13 of ’49, the Dodgers came to town with Robinson on the team. Young Flynn sold his newspapers at Braves Field and waited outside the visitor’s club house to get Jackie’s signature.
Pee Wee Reese came out, Flynn said, and gave him his autograph; so too Gil Hodges. When Robinson came out he was carrying a large duffel bag, but he put it in on the ground to sign for the 10-year-old. Flynn then asked if he could carry Jackie’s bag up to Commonwealth Avenue, where Robinson was to get a taxi. Jackie looked at his duffel bag and the little kid, but said, “Sure.”
When they got to Commonwealth and Jackie found a cab, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar ($10 today) to hand Flynn, but the young boy said, “No, Mr. Robinson, I can’t accept, because it’s been an honor to meet you and to carry your bag.”
On July 6, Brooklyn came back to Boston and Braves Field. Ray Flynn sold his newspapers and then, again, waited outside the visitor’s clubhouse for Jackie.
Robinson came out carrying the same large duffel bag and once more Ray Flynn asked if he could carry his bag? And, again, Jackie said, “Yes.”
Before getting in his taxi, Robinson offered another tip to the 10-year-old, and once more his offer was declined, with Flynn saying, “This is an honor for me.”
Jackie Robinson then said to Ray Flynn, “Young man, I know you will grow up to become a great athlete.”
Ray Flynn went to Providence College, where he became an All-American basketball player, went on tour with the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, and became known as the greatest athlete to come out of South Boston
That is his Jackie Robinson story.
Some story. Some kid. Some athlete – and one of Boston’s greatest public servants.