Recalling Jackie Robinson

Article excerpt

It's not surprising, but it's poignant.

Almost a quarter-century after it happened, recalling the death of Jackie Robinson seems to bring back all of the hurt for his widow, Rachel Robinson.

"Ohhhh," she says quietly over the phone from her New York home. Indeed, it had not been a good few years. Her son, Jackie Jr., was killed in a car crash in June 1971. Her mother died in April 1973. And, of course, perhaps worst of all, on Oct. 23, 1972, Brooklyn Dodgers great and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson collapsed in his wife's arms, dead of a heart attack.

"How I managed to get through it . . . " says Mrs. Robinson, 74, her voice trailing off. "I decided to go into deep mourning. I didn't pretend not to be badly hurt.

"Still, it was intense. I took over his business a month after he died."

Yet this is only a small part of Rachel Robinson's story. Most of it is about excitement, love and family - not only about living with the man who broke the color barrier in baseball, but about her life, their partnership and the people they touched.

Her forthcoming book, "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait" (Abrams, $29.95), is also the subject of a Smithsonian Associates program coming this way Monday night. Mrs. Robinson, founder and chairwoman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and her co-author, Lee Daniels, who has written for The Washington Post and the New York Times, will present a slide lecture. They will sign books for sale after the talk.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Rachel Isum Robinson met her husband at UCLA in 1940. Jackie Robinson was a four-year letterman who set records in football, basketball, track and field and baseball.

"In those days, there was a place on campus where the small group of black students used to gather," Mrs. Robinson says, chuckling. "It was a place where the females would wait for the ballplayers to walk by.

"None of our friends would ever let me forget that at first I thought he was arrogant, just by the way he would stand there with his hands on his hips," Mrs. Robinson says.

Yet she says that when she got to know him, there was more to Jack Roosevelt Robinson than her first impression had led her to believe. She saw a strength and confidence, which was especially exuded, she says, in the way he walked.

"He knew where he was going, he was forthright, and he was very handsome," Mrs. Robinson says. "He had a wonderful smile, a deep voice and a pride in himself. Not all black people then had that kind of self-esteem."

The two went on their first date in 1941 to a UCLA football dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Mrs. Robinson says shyness was the bond that brought them closer together. She recalls that both drove to school, and if they pulled into the campus parking lot at the same time, it was a "great thrill" for them both.

In 1942, Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army. He was honorably discharged as a second lieutenant in 1944. In 1945, Rachel earned her nursing degree, and the next year, the two were married in February.

Mrs. Robinson says that baseball was not necessarily her husband's first choice. He enjoyed football, she says, but he was concerned about getting major injuries.

"It all just happened," she says. "When he got out of the Army, he was a man of many talents but no job possibilities."

In April 1946, Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals minor-league team. …