Part owner among Dodgers remembering icon's contributions on 66th anniversary
Barry M. Bloom
LOS ANGELES -- Monday night was the first celebration of Jackie Robinson Day with Magic Johnson front and center as a part owner of the Dodgers.
For the 66th anniversary of the day Robinson shattered the color barrier as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Major League Baseball came full circle at Dodger Stadium. Robinson was the first African-American player of the 20th century to play in the Majors, and the former Lakers great is the first high-level African-American owner.
Just before the on-field ceremony, Johnson said there was nothing comparable in the National Basketball Association, where his star was born, to the legacy Robinson has left baseball. "Jackie Robinson probably opened the door to a lot of those guys, too -- and me," Johnson said before his team's series opener against the Padres. "If Jackie hadn't played for the Dodgers, I don't think I'd be an owner of the Dodgers."
Robinson was honored on Monday in each of the eight ballparks where games were played, but the main ceremony was staged in the newly upgraded 51-year-old ballpark for the first time since 2007, when the 60th anniversary was celebrated. Once again, every member of the Dodgers and Padres -- as well as all uniformed personnel throughout the Major Leagues -- wore Robinson's famous No. 42.
In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, Robinson's No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute. The wearing of the number throughout baseball seemed even more appropriate this year than any other, coming only days after release of the film "42," which largely details and dramatizes Robinson's travails playing baseball during the 1947 season after being signed to a Major League contract by ground-breaking Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Johnson was accompanied on the field by Don Newcombe, the 86-year-old former teammate of Jackie's in Brooklyn; Rachel Robinson, Jackie's seemingly ageless widow and the founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which offers college scholarships to underprivileged minority students; and their daughter, Sharon, who has taken a more central role in the foundation and works for MLB.
Rachel, at 90, has been absent from a few of the anniversary celebrations of late and said on Monday that she's glad Sharon now "has taken on the speaking role." But Rachel is still thrilled to recognize the accomplishments of her husband, who passed away at 53 in 1972.
"This means that his legacy lives on," Rachel Robinson said. "That's what we wanted to have happen after we formed the Jackie Robinson Foundation, to have his legacy live on. It was his commitment to what he did. That's what came through in the film, and that's what we wanted young people to see. He was committed to Rickey, and he was committed to himself. That commitment is the important part of it."
Harrison Ford, a dead ringer for Rickey in portraying the Hall of Fame baseball executive on the big screen, threw out the first pitch to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. Standing in front of the mound, Ford bounced the ball to the plate and seemed a tad disappointed afterward.
"I should have thrown it from the rubber," Ford said sheepishly. "But they told me not to do it so I wouldn't embarrass myself."
About his part in depicting the life of Robinson, Ford added: "It's significant -- very important for young people to realize that Jackie Robinson is not just a footnote in history. It's important for them to feel what it was like to be Jackie Robinson at that time and to recognize there are opportunities for them in their lives to help make America a better place."
The ceremony began on a somber note with a moment of silence for those who died and were injured on Monday during a bombing at the Boston Marathon. Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said the tragedy was another example of how precious life is.
"It impacts you a lot," Kemp said. "It brings it all into perspective."
About playing for the Dodgers under the long shadow of Robinson's legacy, Kemp said:
"For me, this is very special. I get to put on the same jersey Jackie Robinson put on. I get to put it on every single day. But on this day, April 15, wearing No. 42 with the Dodgers across my chest is more than very special. Everybody has to realize how important Jackie was as a player and as a person."
Johnson was no less vociferous about Robinson. Magic is a basketball Hall of Famer who combined with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to win five NBA titles with the Lakers. He was joined at several stadium events on Monday by Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, who wrote the foreword to MLB.com's recent eBook, titled "Fortitude: The Exemplary Life of Jackie Robinson."
Upon his arrival at one function, Johnson acknowledged Abdul-Jabbar by saying, "Here comes my captain."
Some relationships live on forever. Johnson said that he was asked to join what was, at the time, a prospective Dodgers ownership by team president Stan Kasten, "who put the whole thing together." Mark Walter, the Dodgers' chairman and owner, is the control person of the group that purchased the team from Frank McCourt last May 1 for $2.15 billion. Johnson -- No. 2 in the ownership hierarchy, and featuring a bio listed just below Walter in the team media guide -- did what he does best on Monday, posing for pictures, signing autographs and greeting people.
At 53, Magic is 17 years removed from his last games in the NBA and still has that dazzling smile -- and shines it often.
Being part of the festivities was something unique in Magic's long and storied career, he said.
"It's just great," Johnson said. "It's been wonderful to be part of this with the Robinson family and his wonderful wife and his daughter. One of the graduates of the Jackie Robinson Foundation works for me, so I'm tied in all the way around. Now that I'm the first African-American to own the Dodgers, to be part of this great organization is very powerful as well.
"Look, the man had to endure a lot. Imagine how tough it was for him to focus on baseball when he was getting death threats and everything else. But you know what? He maintained his focus, his discipline. The strength that this guy had to have was amazing."