JR and the kid: Unlikely bond spans decades

April 15th, 2021

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.

Dear Ronnie,

I'm happy to know everything about your bar mitzvah. My schedule has been so busy. I have not been able to keep up with the outside responsibilities. ... It doesn't seem as if I'll be getting to Sheboygan soon. My work has been very busy and I have not been able to get away as much as I would like for personal reasons.

Ronnie, one of the things that pleases me most is that our friendship continues even though I am no longer connected with baseball. It is friends like you that make me feel that everything that happened was worthwhile.

I hope we do get a chance to see each other soon. It seems when people are as far apart as we are, they have a tendency to forget. I hope we don't. My regards to the family. I hope everything continues to go well.

Always, Jackie

The 1997 season marked the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and, as reported at the time by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Twins commemorated the occasion by partnering with the Jackie Robinson Foundation and making a $50,000 contribution.

The Twins held a press conference and extended an invitation to Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, who established the foundation following her husband's death.

They also invited Ron Rabinovitz, a native of Sheboygan, Wis., who, at the time, sold boxes and packaging out of a company in Golden Valley, Minn., called Liberty Carton. That had followed a 25-year career selling children's clothing around six Midwest states as a manufacturer's representative.

Rabinovitz remembers sitting in the audience at the Metrodome in a large group of reporters before he stood up and approached Rachel Robinson at the end of the event.

"Rachel, I'm Ronnie Rabinovitz," he said.

"You're Ronnie Rabinovitz? Oh, my God!" she replied, immediately reaching to give him a big hug and kiss. "Jack loved you so much."

Jackie Robinson loved all children around the game of baseball, but Rachel told Rabinovitz, then deep into adulthood, that she had never seen her late husband connect with other children the way he had with Rabinovitz all those years ago in 1953, when the pair began a friendship that started at a game between the Milwaukee Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers and carried through the end of Jackie Robinson's life.

But to this day, Rabinovitz can't answer with much certainty the question he has been asked so many times before, by so many people: Why him?

Why did Robinson, one of the greatest ballplayers of his era and one of America's most enduring cultural icons, choose to open up with such depth, vulnerability and love to an 8-year-old from Wisconsin? Why did the kid and the idol connect so well through the years when discussing matters of family, friendship, politics and the garment industry through regular letters and, later, phone calls?

"We were so different," Rabinovitz said. "I was white. He was black. I was Jewish. He was Christian. I was a kid. He was an adult. I was from a little town in the Midwest. He was from a large city out east. And yet, there was this bond of friendship and love."

Rabinovitz thinks it's because he's the one who kept writing back.

The first letter to Jackie actually didn't come from Ronnie. It was his father, David Rabinovitz, who wrote Robinson in the hopes that the star would say hello to his son at Milwaukee County Stadium. The elder Rabinovitz was an attorney with early involvement in the civil rights movement who admired Branch Rickey and the Dodgers for giving Robinson a chance in the Major Leagues and passed that love for the club to his son.

Robinson replied with a small note and an autographed photo. Not only that, but when the young Rabinowitz stepped forward from a crowd of kids at the ballpark, Robinson recognized his name as the same that was on his father David’s stationery. Jackie told him to stay in touch.

So, when Rabinovitz got home that night, he immediately sat down and wrote. He sealed the envelope and addressed it simply: "Jackie Robinson, Stamford, Connecticut."

"No address, no zip code," Rabinovitz said. "He got it. And that's how it all started."

Every time the Dodgers came to Milwaukee thereafter, the Rabinovitz family met up with Robinson. In fact, in September 1955, the Dodgers were in town for one game on Rabinovitz's 10th birthday -- and wouldn't you know it, Jackie went 2-for-4 with a home run and waved to Rabinovitz in the box seats by the third-base dugout as he rounded third.

After the game, he exited the locker room, hopped into the Rabinovitz family car, and they sped off to the restaurant together.

"It was great to have Jackie Robinson singing 'Happy Birthday' to me," Rabinovitz said. "It was probably the best birthday I ever had."

Jackie Robinson and Ron Rabinovitz at his 10th birthday party.Courtesy Ron Rabinovitz

Dear Ronnie,

How wonderful to hear from you, and how delighted I am to learn that you enjoyed the movie "42." I am so happy to know that the years continue to be kind to you and that you are now the proud grandfather of 10.

Periodically, I read articles that feature the very special relationship you had with Jack, and I'm so happy that through the years, you have kept my husband's legacy alive. It has been so important to me to share Jack's story with the younger generation, and you've done so by sharing the letters that span so many years.

I am so grateful.

Love, Rachel

Rabinovitz still receives a steady stream of letters.

They're not from Jackie anymore, of course. But they mean plenty to Rabinovitz all the same, and he keeps thousands of them at home alongside his cherished correspondence from all those years with the Dodgers legend. These come from students around the country with whom Rabinovitz has shared his story in hopes that his memories of Robinson's personal impact will inspire kindness in the generations to come.

"Very refreshing and rewarding," Rabinovitz said. "I love that."

He lives in Minneapolis and retired from the packaging industry four-and-a-half years ago. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he drove for Uber and Lyft to fill the time.

Through all that time, he never misses an opportunity to spread Jackie's message.

At first, Rabinovitz idolized Robinson the ballplayer because he helped the Dodgers win games. But once Robinson retired from baseball and became a prominent figure in the business and political communities while Rabinovitz himself grew into adulthood, it was only then that Rabinovitz -- coming from a politically active family himself -- came to understand the true cultural and societal significance that his friend carved in society.

"[Robinson] did so much for so many people, you know? A legacy doesn't just happen," Rabinovitz said. "The legacy of Jackie Robinson becomes more clear the more we talk about it, and that's one of the reasons why I do."

So, he talks about it. He shares his story with those who write about it and make movies about it and film documentaries about it. He writes about it himself.

Ron Rabinovitz in January with the children's book he co-authored, "Always Jackie."Rubin Latz

Rabinovitz first approached Major League Baseball with his story in 1987, at the 40th anniversary of Robinson integrating baseball. He first appeared in a story in the Chicago Sun-Times and then the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and that opened the door for people -- first around the Twin Cities area, then around the country -- to ask him to come speak with groups and share the lessons he learned from Robinson.

Since then, he has been featured in "Letters from Jackie," a documentary on the MLB Network, and his story has been adapted into a play called "Incredible Season" by Eric Simonson. Most recently, Rabinovitz helped to write a children's book called "Always, Jackie" -- a nod to how Robinson would sign letters to him -- that was released in January 2020.

Now, Rabinovitz loves speaking with kids at schools, but he has also been a regular guest at George Washington University and said that he was also invited to speak at the offices of multinational corporation Unilever in New Jersey. He has spoken twice at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He's also employed by the Minnesota Twins as a tour guide and speaks to students and teachers at Target Field around 25 times a year.

"It gives me such gratification to educate students," Rabinovitz said. "Some of the tour groups will say, 'Boy, we've got a rowdy bunch today.' They're warning me. But I've never run into that. They get to my session and they're completely silent but are asking a lot of good questions. So I think that the presentation is meaningful for them.

"If I can turn one kid from being a bully or being a jerk, it makes it worthwhile for me."

Ron Rabinovitz with one of the student groups he speaks to at Target Field.Courtesy Ron Rabinovitz

Dear Ronnie,

It was good hearing from you again. I hope everyone is fine at home. My family is fine. We have had a nice summer, and with school just around the corner, we're getting prepared.

You are very kind to say the nice things you did. I learned a long time ago that a person must be true to himself if he is to succeed. He must be willing to stand by his principles, even at the possible loss of prestige. He must first learn to live with himself before he can hope to live with others.

I have been fortunate. God has been good to me, and I intend to work as hard as I can to repay all the things people have done for me. I appreciate your friendship and feel as long as you've set a worthwhile goal and head for it, you will do well.

Continued good luck. Give my regards to the family.

Always, Jackie

When Robinson first retired from baseball, Rabinovitz had worried he wouldn't meet his friend again.

"What would he want to come back to Wisconsin for?" Rabinovitz asked.

But Robinson reassured him in a letter that everything would work out and stayed true to his word, visiting Wisconsin several times over the years, in part due to his work with the National Conference for Christians and Jews, to work and spend an afternoon, evening or weekend with the Rabinovitz family.

As the pair grew older, the letters slowly diminished in frequency and eventually came to a stop. Instead, Robinson gave Rabinovitz his unlisted phone number in Stamford, Conn., and they occasionally said hello.

When Rabinovitz began his work in the garment industry in 1969, he was afforded regular opportunities to make business trips to New York, and on any of those excursions, his first phone call was to Robinson. They usually met up for lunch somewhere in the city. If their schedules wouldn't match up, they connected on the phone to catch each other up on their families' lives.

About six months before Robinson died from a heart attack in 1972, Rabinovitz's work brought him back to New York. As always, he called Jackie. They met up -- and Rabinovitz was taken aback. At that point, he recalled that Robinson had already had one heart attack, was blind in one eye and was going blind in the other.

"He was in pretty rough shape," Rabinovitz said. "I was shocked to see him that way. I had to take his arm and walk him into this restaurant. I felt so sad because I remembered him dancing up and down the bases, driving those pitchers crazy. And now, I was helping him. He was so happy to see me and wanted to hear all about my family."

Jackie Robinson and the Rabinovitz family.Courtesy Ron Rabinovitz

Face to face, the old friends spoke and reminisced about family and life, as they had for years by mail, by phone and in person.

After lunch, Rabinovitz hailed a cab, and as he helped his hero settle into the seat, Rabinovitz gave Robinson a kiss on the cheek and told him that he loved him. He closed the door for what he understood would be the last time.

"That cab disappeared into space," Rabinovitz said. "I was standing on that corner in New York City with tears running down my face, because I knew I would never see him again."

But through Rabinovitz a small selection of the memories that made Jackie Robinson so special as a man -- the part of him that inspired a kid through friendship, who, in turn, passed that spirit to another generation of kids -- has continued to endure.