Jackie Robinson's Daughter Comes Back to Baseball
Sharon Robinson, the daughter of black baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson, has forged her own path in life as a midwife and teacher at such prestigious academic institutions as Yale, Columbia, Howard, and Georgetown Universities. She's even become a "football mom" despite her initial aversion to the sport.
This year, however, it was time to come "home," to reconnect with the national pastime in a way that delights her and she is sure would please her father.
In July, with baseball continuing its yearlong celebration of Jackie Robinson's barrier-breaking entrance into the big leagues, Major League Baseball announced that she would fill a new position: director of educational programming.
"It's a nice fit for baseball and for me," she says from her modest office in MLB's Manhattan headquarters. "The position kind of percolated out of the 50th anniversary activities."
She hadn't been thinking of going into baseball and was contemplating working on a national level for a women's organization. The anniversary, however, inspired her to approach Len Coleman, the president of the National League and chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
"We wanted to find some ways to capitalize and continue the positive feelings we've gotten from the anniversary. We didn't want it to be just a one-year celebration," she explains.
Ms. Robinson sees her new position as a natural outgrowth of volunteer work she was doing visiting schools to talk about her dad's pivotal role in baseball and social history.
"We're looking at creative ways to incorporate baseball into learning," she says of her current activities. A main focus will be a pilot program aimed at children in Grades 4, 5, and 6. The program will draw on baseball themes to approach school topics such as math, science, and history.
"In math, we might talk about how you can calculate the speed of a pitch," Robinson says.
Roughly 200,000 students will receive materials during next year's seven-city rollout from Los Angeles to New York City, and Robinson doesn't want the educational outreach to begin and end with her. She wants major-league players involved, visiting schools as well as teaching on the field.
"I want to make sure we bring classrooms to the ballpark, so that children can talk with the coaches and athletes and have some concreteness to the learning," she explains. "I want them to go to a practice so they can sit down and talk. Of course, we can arrange a trip to a game as well."
Teaching values, Robinson emphasizes, is important to baseball. To achieve this, she is working on a memoir that teaches nine values associated with her father, such as determination, courage, and teamwork. It will contain pictures from her mother Rachel's book, "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait," and recollections from her own retrospective, "Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait by the Daughter of Jackie Robinson."
Looking back on the events of this anniversary season, Robinson rates visiting Seattle on Opening Day as a personal highlight. She threw out the first ball and was treated royally by Ken Griffey Jr., who homered twice wearing Jackie's number (42) for the day. "It was a wonderful thing to see him take so much leadership," Robinson says of Griffey.
Two weeks later, baseball retired the number during a nationally televised game at New York's Shea Stadium.
In August, she was an honored guest at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., an experience that rekindled her fascination with youth baseball, an activity her own son, Jesse Simms, largely bypassed. He played T-ball, but pursued other sports thereafter, thus avoiding the constant comparisons to his famous grandfather.
Jesse turned to football and became a standout lineman at King Low-Heywood Thomas prep school in Stamford, Conn., where he and his mother (a single parent) live.
He accepted an athletic scholarship to attend University of California at Los Angeles, Jackie Robinson's alma mater, but reconsidered at the last minute and is now waiting to enroll at a school closer to home.
His mother, who cautioned of pressures at UCLA, calls Jesse's change of heart "one of the lessons we learned from this 50th anniversary" and its many moments in the limelight. "I am comfortable with his decision because maybe he is that much further along."
As a five-year-old assigned to record his thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse had once written, "Thank you, Dr. King, for your words."
"Now isn't that interesting," Robinson said to herself. "Here we are always defining other people's legacies when all we have to do is go back and look at what people like Dr. King and my father have written. Their words define their own legacy".
For Sharon Robinson the words her father lived by were these: A life is not important except for the impact it has on others.
"Sports was always a part of our life," she says, "but what we talked about at the dinner table was in some way related to service."
Teaching, Robinson observes, has been part of everything she has done as an adult.
"It seems it all leads up to this," she says of baseball's educational directorship. The position opens vistas of ever-wider service, the kind her dad was always recommending.