Jackie perfect choice as Dodgers' inaugural honoree
Hall of Famer's statue will become the first of many monuments at Dodger Stadium
Goodness knows, society can't honor Jackie Robinson enough. He ranks among our national icons, and he deserves an eternal hug from everybody who is into mom, apple pie and the American flag. So when it comes to baseball and the Dodgers along these lines, that hug should get even tighter.
You know all about baseball's love affair with Robinson.
Among other things, Major League officials spent April 15, 1997, at Shea Stadium in New York with other dignitaries celebrating the 50th anniversary of the former Dodgers star breaking the game's color barrier. They capped the evening by announcing his No. 42 would be retired by every team.
Now comes the Dodgers giving everybody an early Christmas present this week by announcing they'll start with Robinson during the development of their version of Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. When completed, they'll have statues around Chavez Ravine of luminaries from the Dodgers' splendid past -- ranging from their Brooklyn days, featuring World Series classics against the Yankees, to their current home in Los Angeles, where they've been Southern California's most consistent obsession in sports.
In case you didn't know, Dodgers history is lengthy -- and such was the case even before Robinson trotted onto Ebbets Field more than 68 years ago to enhance social consciousness beyond just baseball.
There was Charles Byrne, a real estate guru, who founded the Dodgers in conjunction with other investors during the mid-1880s. There was Wilbert Robinson, known as "Uncle Robbie," who made the Dodgers World Series contenders near the end of World War I. There also was Larry MacPhail, the Hall of Fame baseball executive, who did many innovative things with the Dodgers, including debuting the use of batting helmets, bringing televised games to the sport and enticing Red Barber to come from Cincinnati to Brooklyn to become the legendary radio voice of future Dodgers legends.
Then Branch Rickey arrived as the Dodgers' general manager, but he evolved into more than that. He was baseball's greatest visionary of the 20th century. One moment, Rickey was inventing the concept of a Spring Training site -- which he opened for the Dodgers during the late 1940s in Vero Beach, Fla., as Dodgertown and which remained the crown jewel of such sites until nearly the 21st century. The next, he was building the first pitching machines and batting cages.
There were also other Rickey things, but nothing surpassed his ability to bring African-Americans into the game through Robinson, who was already a rising American hero before his Dodgers days.
Prior to Robinson, no UCLA athlete ever had lettered in four sports (baseball, basketball, football and track), and he was the NCAA's long jump champion in 1940. Later, during World War II, he earned his stripes as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, which was no small task in the mostly segregated armed forces back then. Robinson also became Rosa Parks before Rosa Parks more than a decade earlier, when he refused to move from the front to the back of an Army bus during the summer of '44. He was nearly court-martialed.
Still, Robinson sprinted into America's consciousness through his ability to not only withstand isolation he endured and the insults hurled his way after he joined the Major Leagues, but through his skills as a baseball player. Despite not joining the Dodgers until the relatively advanced age of 28 after a stint in the Negro Leagues, Robinson spent his decade in the Major Leagues -- all with the Dodgers -- building a Hall of Fame resume. He was named an All-Star six times, won the first Rookie of the Year Award, won the National League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, captured a batting title, led the NL in stolen bases twice, grabbed a World Series ring and finished with a lifetime batting average of .311.
If all of that isn't enough to make Robinson the first person honored with a statue at Dodger Stadium, there is this: his contributions following his playing career. Long after he couldn't shock logic anymore by stealing home with everybody watching, he remained a physical and vocal reminder that American society could do better when it came to its treatment of minorities.
Robinson joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during events in the South that promoted integration. In addition, there was Robinson's constant plea for baseball to hire its first African-American manager, along with its first African-American third-base coach. Neither happened during Robinson's lifetime, since Frank Robinson didn't become the first African-American manager in the Major Leagues until 1975 with the Indians. But consider this: The Dodgers hired Dave Roberts last month as their first African-American manager, and he was born in 1972, the same year that Robinson died.
Talk about perfect timing for that Robinson statue.
This isn't to say others aren't deserving (like Byrne, Wilbert Robinson, MacPhail, Barber and Rickey). You can also include the bulk of those who started with Robinson on those Boys of Summer teams from the late 1940s through mid-1950s. You know the names: Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Duke Snider.
You also can't forget about Walter Alston, the manager during the Dodgers' latter days in Brooklyn and their years in Los Angeles through 1976. He led the franchise to four World Series championships.
Among Alston's L.A. Dodgers of yore were Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills and Don Sutton. They are all statue-worthy, while many of their Dodger Blue successors became at least plaque-worthy -- ranging from Steve Garvey and Ron Cey to Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela.
As for Vin Scully, he deserves a statue, a plaque or both for his ability to turn Dodgers baseball -- well, baseball, period -- into several hours of poetry for each game over many decades. You also have Tommy Lasorda, who did more than just follow Alston as another managerial wizard for the franchise. He created the term "Dodger Blue," and that's worthy enough right there for Lasorda to receive something huge and bronzed around Dodger Stadium.
We're back to Jackie Robinson, though. The Dodgers already have noted sculptor Branly Cadet designing the 10-foot-high statue that will make Robinson even larger than life.
When told of the Dodgers' plans regarding her late husband, Rachel Robinson said in a statement, "We're thrilled that the Dodgers will honor Jack with the inaugural statue at Dodger Stadium. Branly Cadet's excitement for the project is heartening, and I look forward to unveiling it with great enthusiasm."
She won't be alone.