How the Mets built the Jackie Robinson Rotunda

Fans had a hand in a monument to an icon

April 15th, 2020

NEW YORK -- When Mets owner Fred Wilpon was a teenager, he had an opportunity not just to meet Jackie Robinson, but to throw the future Hall of Famer batting practice early in his career. Even then, Robinson’s legacy was clear to see.

In retrospect, as baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on the 73rd anniversary of his breaking the sport’s color barrier, it is even more obvious.

It was certainly that way 11 years ago, when the Mets opened Citi Field to continue a legacy of National League ballparks in the outer boroughs. To celebrate the lineage from Ebbets Field to Citi Field, the Wilpon family took elements from the former ballpark and incorporated them into the latter -- none more obvious than the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, a 19,000-square foot space that welcomes fans spilling off the 7 Line.

“There was no doubt we were going to do something for Jackie,” recalled Wilpon’s son, Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

The result is a shrine to one of baseball’s most important legends. Entering one of the rotunda’s 70-foot archways, fans are met by an eight-foot “42” sculpture shining in blue. Above the archways, Robinson’s most famous quotation is printed: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

When Robinson’s widow, Rachel, saw the space at its 2009 dedication, she remarked that she was “speechless.”

“Jack was actually a very humble man,” Rachel Robinson said that day. “Some of you who are baseball fans wouldn’t believe that because you only saw him on the field arguing with umpires and trying to beat the other guys. But he was a very humble man. I think he would have been stunned by being acknowledged in this way and remembered in this way. It’s so grand and so beautiful. And the rotunda is not just a physical space, but it carries with it so many memories and so many messages.”

Knowing early in Citi Field’s design phase that he wanted to honor Robinson, Fred Wilpon spoke of his plans to both Rachel and her daughter, Sharon. Lacking the original 1912 blueprints for Ebbets Field (the actual drawings were presumed lost for decades, before they resurfaced in 2012), the Wilpons and their architectural firm relied on photographs and memories. Once word got out that the Mets would build a rotunda, fans began mailing in their own photos of the space.

“I think the biggest thing is that people still go in there and look around and I won’t say marvel at it, but certainly there’s a feeling of place and commitment to what we did,” Jeff Wilpon said. “I enjoy watching people go in there and enjoy the space. It’s the front entrance to our building.”

That building belongs to the Mets, and over the years, the team has made more of a commitment to showcase its own six-decade history within Citi Field’s walls. Yet it’s worth noting that the Mets take more than just their royal blue uniform coloring from their Brooklyn ancestors. Although Robinson played his entire 10-year career with the Dodgers, he never did so in Los Angeles. As such, a significant piece of his legacy remains in New York.

“It’s an honor and a responsibility,” Wilpon said, referring to the Mets’ place as the NL torchbearers in New York City. “Any time you have somebody that does something for the game as somebody like Jackie did, it’s a responsibility to teach others about it and make sure it’s not forgotten -- what he went through and what his coming into the league meant to all of baseball.”