1997: Jackie Robinson Honored
City Pays Tribute To Sports Hero
By MATT HAMPTON
Robinson, in a pre-game pose before an afternoon on the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the now demolished Ebbets Field just a few hundred yards from Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Though Robinson went 0-for-3 on that day, he struck a blow for Civil Rights that would be felt across society.
At a time when children still attended segregated schools, and restaurants and neighborhoods had harsh dividing lines that could not be crossed, Jackie Robinson bridged a deep societal rift.
Fifty years later, on April 15, 1997, President Bill Clinton visited Shea Stadium to commemorate the career and accomplishments of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, and the Tribune was there to witness the historic event.
According to the Tribune of April 17, 1997, the most striking element of the evening was the intense security net that fell around Shea Stadium, and the huge response that the President and Robinson’s widow received when they took the field.
“Dozens of cops, some on horseback, formed a ring around the field as an umpire called the final strike to end the fifth inning of play between the Mets and the Dodgers,” wrote the Trib. “That’s when Clinton appeared briefly with Rachel Robinson, widow of the Late Hall of Fame player Jackie Robinson to celebrate the golden anniversary of Robinson’s breaking of the color line into major league baseball.”
The on ramp to the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Kew Gardens.
The significance of the evening was palpable as Clinton and Robinson spoke, followed by Bud Selig, Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Selig, according to reports from CNN, said that “no single person is bigger than the game of baseball, no one except Jackie Robinson...He remains bigger than the game.”
Selig took that moment to officially retire Robinson’s number 42 for all teams in major league baseball, as a testament to the courage of Robinson, and the difference that one person can make in society with determination and the will to do what’s for the greater good.
As well, that same week, the Interboro Parkway, which originates in Queens and winds it’s way through parks and cemeteries to Brooklyn, was renamed the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Commuters on the Jackie Robinson Parkway travel directly past the Cypress Hills Cemetery where Robinson is buried.
“By naming the Interboro Parkway after him today, we say a small thank you to Jackie Robinson, who paved the way for generations of African Americans,” then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani was quoted in the Tribuneat the time. “Fifty years ago, in one memorable season, he changed baseball and American society forever.”
The legislation to change the name of the Interboro was spearheaded by State Senator Serphin Maltese (R-Glendale) and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D-Corona), both of whom still represent their districts 10 years later.
Maltese remembered that the idea to rename the Interboro was one of the rare cases of a uniform positive response from the community.
“It was unanimity, absolute unanimity. Everybody not only wanted to go along with it but everyone wanted to be part of it,” Maltese said. “I know, especially [then-Mayor] Rudy [Giuliani], even though he was a Yankees fan, he and everybody else wanted to pay homage to Jackie Robinson.”
Giuliani was so excited by the renaming, in fact, that he was one of the first official passengers on the newly renamed Parkway, along with Robinson’s widow and then-Gov. George Pataki.
Maltese said he sponsored the legislation in the State Senate because of his deep admiration for the kind of man that Robinson was, and because of his appreciation of what was a monumental feat.
“I know that it took a great deal of perseverance and gumption to be the first, and to take the type of crap that fans and even some players gave him,” Maltese added. “He surmounted that, and he played like a champion.”
Maltese also thought the renaming was appropriate considering the burial site of Robinson, who he said can be memorialized by the roadway as well as the Cypress Hills Cemetery.
According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York, Robinson was born in Georgia in 1919. He lived a life characterized be a fierce determination, and a work ethic that was reflected by his play both on the base paths, and his life outside the sport. When he attended college, he was the only athlete in the entire vast annals of UCLA history to letter in four sports.
Robinson was also a mainstay on a Brooklyn team that won the NL pennant six times and the World Series once while he was a member of the Dodgers. Within two years of entering the league, Robinson was named its Most Valuable Player.
Major League Baseball continually celebrates the impact of Jackie Robinson, both on the sport and on society at large. This year, the offices of MLB announced the establishment of a “Civil Rights Game,” played at the end of Spring Training, designed to celebrate the impact of the sport on the Civil Rights Movement. The game will be played in Memphis, between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians, and other events will include a panel discussion and an exhibit.
The contribution of Jackie Robinson, both to the national pastime and sport he loved, as well as the social tenor of the country, is an almost immeasurable impact, one that is felt in Queens as strongly as anywhere in the country.