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Happy Blessed 100th Birthday, Rachel Robinson!

Jessica Johnson on

Regal. Elegant. Stunningly beautiful. This is how I have always thought of Rachel Robinson, the widow of baseball great Jackie Robinson. Rachel celebrated her 100th birthday on July 19 and was honored at the MLB All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium. I distinctly remember learning more about her in a Black history sports class that I was taking as a graduate student at Ohio State University in the late 1990s. My professor was a huge Jackie Robinson fan, and one of the required books for reading in that course was Jules Tygiel's "Baseball's Great Experiment," which examines the cultural, racial and social impact of Robinson desegregating the Majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. As more scholarly works were being published on Jackie Robinson in the 90s, my professor suggested that I write my dissertation on Rachel Robinson and the specific challenges she faced while her husband broke through baseball's color line. I gave it some thought but eventually decided to do a latent content analysis on the difference in mainstream media and Black press coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, a trendier news topic during this time. However, I began to follow the work Rachel was doing when I started researching the decline of Major League African American baseball players in the early 2000s. Now, I have the opportunity to teach students about her in my Jackie Robinson segment for my Sports Icons class at Ohio State's Lima campus.

You will not find a more graceful figure in American sports history than Rachel Robinson, who came of age as a young Black woman in Los Angeles during the 1940s. She and Jackie met as undergrads at UCLA while she was studying nursing. She recalls in Arnold Rampersad's biography on Jackie that the future baseball trailblazer was her mother's "dream guy from the start." When Rachel and Jackie married in 1946, Jackie had already begun his groundbreaking, historical path that would integrate professional baseball. He was scheduled to start spring training with the Dodgers' affiliate Montreal Royals, and Rachel was the pillar of strength Jackie leaned on for the unnerving obstacles they were about to encounter.

Rachel's resilient strength was coupled with fearless poise and refined dignity. Her cultured demeanor was adeptly portrayed in the Robinson biopic "42" when she and Jackie were waiting in the New Orleans Lakefront Airport for their flight to Daytona Beach, Florida, where Jackie would join his Royals teammates. Rachel was intensely staring at a "White Only" sign on the restroom door for women. She stated to Jackie that she had never seen one before and then promptly walked in while one of the attendants looked on with disgust. The attendant deliberately gave Rachel and Jackie's seats to two White passengers, which resulted in the newlyweds enduring a grueling Greyhound bus ride. Rachel definitely knew about the bigotry of southern Jim Crow laws but living in Los Angeles had afforded her a little more liberty. She adamantly refused to give that up even though she was in the racial confines of the deep South.

I believe this particular incident with Rachel, among many others, was what Jackie was referring to when he said, "There's nothing like faith in God to help a fellow who gets booted around once in a while." Rachel was steadfastly by Jackie's side for all of the "booting around," as well as all of the malicious racial slurs and death threats that would follow them from Daytona Beach to Brooklyn once Jackie made the Dodgers' roster. Being a Black woman, Rachel was especially vulnerable to danger, but she showed up to Jackie's games with bold composure to cheer him on in the midst of taunts and jeers. She always stepped out dressed to the nines in fitted A-line dresses and peep-toe heels often accessorized with pearls. Her perfectly coiffed hair accentuated her gorgeous smile.

 

As we have been celebrating Jackie's Major League breakthrough for 75 years, Rachel also has pioneering accomplishments, which include starting the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973, one year after Jackie's death. The foundation has raised over $100 million in scholarships for young people who aspire to attend college. One of Rachel's most recent honors was in 2007 when she became the first female and nonplayer recipient of the MLB commissioner's Historic Achievement Award. For someone like Rachel who has been abundantly blessed by God to see 100 years, I think about Job 12:12, which says that "in length of days (is) understanding." Rachel's days have included great struggle and inspirational triumph. She is a wonderful living legacy.

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Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 

 

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