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Jackie's legacy endures on field, in the stands

MLB.com @MikeLupica

This is about an anniversary that really should be a national holiday, not just a big and important day honored by baseball every year.

This is about the 71st anniversary of the day when Jackie Robinson first ran out to first base at Ebbets Field and did not just change baseball forever and make it better forever, but made America better. Before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became a Civil Rights leader in America, Jackie Robinson became that kind of leader first, at first base for the Dodgers, by breaking baseball's color barrier.

This is about an anniversary that really should be a national holiday, not just a big and important day honored by baseball every year.

This is about the 71st anniversary of the day when Jackie Robinson first ran out to first base at Ebbets Field and did not just change baseball forever and make it better forever, but made America better. Before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. became a Civil Rights leader in America, Jackie Robinson became that kind of leader first, at first base for the Dodgers, by breaking baseball's color barrier.

"The thing to remember about Mr. Robinson," author and columnist Pete Hamill said, "is that he didn't just integrate baseball. He integrated the stands, as well."

It happened in Brooklyn on April 15, 1947. Hamill, who is of Brooklyn and is now living there again as he writes a book about coming home that will be called "The Old Country," was 11 years old when Robinson made his debut. But he did not see Robinson play a game in person until June 3 of that year, a doubleheader between the Dodgers and the Pirates, played three weeks before Hamill turned 12. So between April and June, in a world without television, Hamill had only heard Robinson play baseball through the broadcast poetry of Red Barber.

Hamill once said that you could walk down the street in Brooklyn in those days and not miss a pitch if the Dodgers were playing, because of Barber's voice coming out of the radio, out of windows and off stoops, as if he were walking along with you.

"I'd only heard Jackie play," Hamill said. "But I felt as if I'd already seen him."

All over baseball, Robinson's legacy, his lasting and essential place in the history of baseball, his role in making the country so much better over the second half of the 20th century, will be discussed, sometimes in the abstract. It is not abstract for Hamill. It was all quite real for him in the spring of 1947. And rather wonderful.

"The day I saw the Dodgers play the Pirates was the first time I had ever been to Ebbets Field," Hamill said. "My father took me. We went with some of his friends, from a part of our borough now known as South Slope. One of my father's friends owned a taxi, so we all rode to the game. It was all ridiculously exciting."

Only people who are of Brooklyn the way Hamill is can properly describe how important the Dodgers were in Brooklyn in those days, and how they became even more important, with Ebbets Field becoming even more of a capital of the game, because of Robinson. And after Robinson came an amazing catcher named Roy Campanella. There was a time back in the 1990s, when Campanella was still alive, and I took Hamill to Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., when the Dodgers still had Spring Training there. We were visiting with Tommy Lasorda at Holman Stadium there, when Pete saw Campanella, in his wheelchair because of the car accident in 1958 that had paralyzed him and nearly killed him, out near the right-field foul pole. Pete excused himself and went down to introduce himself to Campanella, one of the baseball heroes of his youth.

"You're from Brooklyn, aren't you?" Campy asked Pete that day.

Pete said he was, but how did Campy know?

"Guys your age," Campy said, "you're always from Brooklyn."

He remembers so much of what happened that day in June of '47, Hamill does, the first time he saw Robinson in person, and not in his imagination. He remembers Robinson being hit by a pitch thrown by Pittsburgh's Hank Behrman, stealing second and coming around to score.

"He'd already been hit a lot by then [six times before he got to June, most in the Majors]," Pete Hamill said. "The pitchers were still a little slow catching on to how monumentally dumb it was to give Jack Roosevelt Robinson an easy base."

But more than Robinson being hit by the pitch, Hamill remembered what happened when Robinson arrived at first base. Hank Greenberg was with the Pirates and playing first base in what would be his last season. So the great Greenberg was playing his last season as Robinson was playing his first.

And when Robinson arrived at first base, Greenberg said something to him, and even from the upper deck, Pete could see Jackie Robinson throw back his head and laugh.

Much later in his life and much later in Robinson's life, Hamill sat with Robinson because he wanted to write a column about him. In the course of the conversation, Pete told him about that day in the spring of 1947, and attending his first game, one the Dodgers would eventually win, 11-6.

"When you got to first base," Pete said, "Greenberg said something to you and made you laugh. What did he say?"

Robinson smiled.

"He said, 'Don't worry about it,'" Robinson said. "Hank said, 'I'm Jewish. They used to try to the same [stuff] on me.'"

There will be so many fine memories of who Robinson was and what he meant this weekend. I am lucky enough to know his widow, Rachel, the First Lady of baseball, and Jackie's daughter Sharon, and Sharon's son, Jesse. I was honored once to ride to Shea Stadium with Rachel on the night of the 50th anniversary of Jackie's debut back in 1997. Her late husband, of course, was not the only figure of grace and strength and dignity in that marriage.

Hamill has his own memories of the baseball spring of 1947, when the face of baseball became one of color, because the color barrier had finally and blessedly been broken. We are always too quick to call our best athletes heroes. There has never been a bigger hero in the history of American sports than Jackie Robinson. Ask Pete. He was there. He heard Robinson before he saw him. And can see him still.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.