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Yankees celebrate Jackie by honoring Mandela

With families present, club unveils plaque commemorating 1990 Stadium speech

NEW YORK -- On June 21, 1990, Nelson Mandela made a visit to the old Yankee Stadium. Just freed after nearly three decades in prison, the future president of South Africa delivered his speech donned in a Yankees jacket and cap.

These memorable words spoken that day by Mandela were memorialized on a plaque hung on the back wall of Memorial Park in the new Stadium on Wednesday night:

"You know who I am, I am a Yankee."

On the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson forever shattered Major League Baseball's color barrier, the Yankees chose to honor Mandela. The event, delayed by a day because of Tuesday night's rainout, was attended by the Robinsons -- Rachel and Sharon, Jackie's widow and daughter -- and the Mandelas -- Zondwa and Lindo, Mandela's grandson and his grandson's wife.

Baseball and South African royalty.

"This is a momentous event," Randy Levine, the Yankees' president, said in a group interview after a lengthy media conference to address the event before the nightcap of a day-night doubleheader against the Cubs. "I've always said that the Yankees and Yankee Stadium are about big things and big events. And nothing is bigger than Monument Park. We commemorate big things. We've had popes come to visit. We have a 9/11 memorial in addition to all the great Yankees.

"Nelson Mandela was one of the great historical figures of all time. When he came to Yankee Stadium, that was a monumental event. And to do this on Jackie Robinson Day, that to me is what's unique and so sensational and so phenomenal about this. And to have Nelson Mandela's grandson in the same room with Rachel and Sharon Robinson, it's unbelievable."

Only hours after Masahiro Tanaka tamed the Cubs, 3-0, on two bunt hits and 10 strikeouts over eight innings in the day game, the plaque was unveiled and dedicated out in Monument Park with a bevy of dignitaries standing by, the festivities shown to the crowd on the stadium's huge video board. The same group then advanced to home plate, where a framed replica of the plaque was presented by the Yankees to the Mandelas.

During the news conference, the inscription of the plaque was read by Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees principal owner. In addition to the words Mandela spoke that long ago day at the original Yankee Stadium, it reads:

"Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013. 'It always seems impossible until it's done.' Nobel Peace Prize winner and global leader, whose tireless efforts dismantled apartheid in South Africa. As president of his country, he would use South Africa's enthusiasm for sports as a unifying force for reconciliation ... In words and deeds he became an inspirational leader to the world."

Among the dignitaries in attendance were former New York Mayor David Dinkins and singer Harry Belafonte, who together helped engineer Mandela's 1990 visit to the U.S.; Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson; George Monyemangene, South Africa's consul general; Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation; and Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball's CEO.

All were asked to make brief remarks to commemorate an event that was made possible when Dinkins interceded with the late Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner and assured him that the field in the old stadium would not be marred by Mandela's appearance.

"I think the Boss needed to hear it from the boss," Levine said. "The real boss."

Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, noted that she had three nieces in the audience, the children of her brother, David, who lives in Tanzania. The significance of this very special Jackie Robinson Day certainly wasn't lost on the Robinson family.

"Bringing together both the Mandela and Robinson legacies was brilliant," she said. "It couldn't be any better than that. We have such respect for Nelson Mandela. My family was present in 1990, when Mandela spoke, and we remember the excitement in New York with his visit."

That speech came almost seven years before Jackie Robinson Day was established by Commissioner Bud Selig, and the event has been celebrated in every Major League park on April 15 since. On that day in 1997, Robinson's No. 42 was also retired throughout the sport.

Because of the rainout, the Cubs and Yankees wore those famous digits in Wednesday's nightcap, a 2-0 New York win.

"When Commissioner Selig created Jackie Robinson Day, he institutionalized what may be the greatest moment in the history of baseball," Manfred said. "I say the greatest moment, because when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, he transcended sports.

"To Mr. and Mrs. Mandela, all of us at MLB are flattered that you are willing to be here and join with us in this celebration this year. Your grandfather will always live as a symbol of justice throughout the world. It is our honor to have you here. And the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family, they have done us proud."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.
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