PASADENA, Calif. -- Pepper Street was quiet on Saturday afternoon, in stark contrast to the baseball field just a mile and a half north, which was bustling with activity from ground balls to pop flies, line drives to baserunning.
Saturday’s event recognized Robinson’s youth, taking place at his alma mater and just a short distance from the street where Robinson was raised. There was also a Play Ball event earlier this year in Kansas City, where Robinson played in the Negro Leagues, and another in Montreal, where Robinson played Minor League baseball shortly after he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The clapboard house on Pepper Street where Robinson grew up is gone now, replaced by a modest one-story home not far from the Rose Bowl. But a plaque there honors the property’s historic significance, reading: “Jackie Robinson resided on this site with his family from 1922 to 1946.”
Jackie’s brother Mack also grew up in that house. Mack Robinson’s daughter Kathy Robinson Young was on hand Saturday, reminding camp participants to not only focus on learning new skills, but to leave with the intention doing something uplifting within the next week for a person who could use a hand.
“Sometimes you meet parents who have a story about what Jackie meant to them growing up, or their parents who had a story,” said Robinson Young, whose father won a silver medal at the 1936 Summer Olympics in the 200 meters. “Uncle Jackie went through a lot. And we need to be stronger with things we deal with in everyday life."
Pasadena is where Robinson’s athletic prowess began to take shape, and where a four-sport athlete blossomed into the player who ended racial segregation in baseball, first when he signed with the Dodgers organization in late 1945, and later when he made his Major League debut in 1947.
It is a history Pasadena mayor Terry Tornek knows well. Tornek, who was also on hand Saturday, grew up in Brooklyn and saw Robinson play at Ebbets Field when he was the same age as many of Saturday’s participants.
“Jackie Robinson is not an abstraction in Pasadena,” Tornek said. “Jackie Robinson is still a presence in this town and his family is still here. We have a lot of Robinsons in Pasadena and they are a valuable part of the community. Jackie’s legacy really lives on. We’ve made sure that kids growing up here know who Jackie was and what he contributed to the nation.”
Diego Huizar, a sophomore baseball player at John Muir, can attest to the area’s embrace of the Robinson legacy. Huizar, 14, helped to keep the event flowing, along with other members of the school’s baseball and softball program, by running a station that tested players’ agility.
“They try to incorporate the history into a lot of our assemblies and try to teach the history,” Huizar said. “We learn to have respect for the game and respect for the fields. It’s cool to play on the same fields and at the same high school as one the greatest players who changed history.”
An estimated 200 players took part in Saturday’s baseball camp, which was free to all participants. A number of members from the local travel baseball club, Legacy 42, also took part. Legacy 42 uses the fields at John Muir for practices and home games.
“Baseball is for the fun of it and not to win; it’s to be a team player,” said 10-year-old Theo Storc, while wearing his Legacy 42 uniform. “You learn to work together.”
Former Major Leaguer Darrell Miller was in charge of Saturday’s camp, making sure all the stations ran smoothly, while also giving hands-on instruction. His full-time duties are as Vice President of Youth and Facility Development for the wildly successful MLB Youth Academy in nearby Compton.
“There is where it all originated, where the [Robinson] dream was being developed,” said Miller, who played in 224 career games for the California Angels from 1984-88. “One of the greatest athletes of all time, if you think about it. What a great athlete Jackie was. For us to be where he began to demonstrate his athletic ability, leading to a scholarship at UCLA and Major League Baseball, it’s a huge honor.”
Dressed head to toe in a Dodgers uniform, 11-year-old Ariel Flores was appreciative of the opportunity to get out on the field. She plays both catcher and first base on her youth baseball team.
“Jackie played and now we can all play, no matter what color we are,” Ariel said. “A girl or a boy, you can play baseball or softball. I play baseball because it’s fun and there are so many positions you can play.”
The way Miller sees it, a free baseball camp -- open to players of all nationalities and abilities no matter the gender -- was an ideal way to honor Robinson.
“People need to remember that we are all in this together,” Miller said. “Regardless of what creed or color you are, it’s all about us as Americans doing the right thing. ... The right way and the right time to help those who are less fortunate, or don’t have the opportunity.”