The family of Jackie Robinson came out in full force last Thursday night, Jan. 31, to help celebrate the late baseball Hall of Famer’s 100th birthday at the So Pas Library.
As part of the celebration–Robinson’s actual birthday was Jan. 31, 1919, and he lived until 1972–the South Pasadena Public Library showed the film, “The Jackie Robinson Story.” The 1950 movie starred Robinson as himself and chronicled his life story.
Not only was the Robinson family present for the movie but a packed-house of nearly 200 people also were on hand to acknowledge the Dodger-great, who is credited for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
“This is one of the best-kept secrets in baseball in terms of Jackie Robinson making his own movie, starring in 1950,” said Mark Langill, the team historian for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also introduced the movie to the audience. “He only lived 53 years and the farther and farther away you get from the passing of ‘72, you see the statues, you see the posters, the stamps, you see everything representing Jackie but this movie gives people a chance to see him in his prime, aged 31, see his athleticism…this is a time capsule for other generations to discover Jackie through his own words and actions.”
Jackie Robinson’s niece, Kathy Robinson-Young, agreed with Langill, saying this event was a great honor for her uncle.
“I’m here because this is Uncle Jackie’s celebration of his birthday and that would make him 100-years-old today,” Robinson-Young said before the showing of the movie. “He and my dad were brothers. My dad would’ve been 100 in 2014. My dad was Mathew Robinson.”
Matthew MacKenzie “Mack” Robinson , 1912-2000, was a track and field star in his own right. He’s best known for winning a silver medal in the 1936 Summer Olympics, where he broke the Olympic record in the 200 meters but finished behind Jesse Owens.
In fact, according to longtime family friend of Robinson-Young, Jack Knight, Mack Robinson broke the 200-meter record in 1936 wearing baseball cleats not track shoes. Mack was Jackie Robinson’s older brother.
“We grew up an Olympic family and then a baseball family,” Robinson-Young said. “This is just truly awesome. There have been so many tributes for Jackie but this is special.”
Robinson-Young also said that people did not know how gentle and kind her uncle was, especially to the children.
“I think they know a lot about him but also he was very kind,” she said. “He was kind to us kids, his nieces and nephews, across the board. He would play out in the grass with us kids and then go inside and spend time with the adults. We were a very close family.”
Another niece, Rose Robinson–also the daughter of Mack Robinson–sang the National Anthem prior to the showing of the movie at the library. She said she’s humbled by her uncle’s successes and life story, no question about that, but the closeness of the Robinson family is vital as well and can be traced to Jackie Robinson.
“It’s so unreal sometimes because when we go to Dodger Stadium, I remember the whole family being there when we have Jackie Robinson Night and we are a close family,” Rose Robinson said to the gathered audience for the movie. “We’re in different states but we are close and our mindset is still to do whatever we can do to give back to the community…I just wanted to say thank you again and I’m always in awe when anybody recognizes my uncle or my father and I just want to stay as humble as I can, as I try to give back as well, so thank you.” Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia on Jan. 31, 1919 and his family moved to Pasadena in 1920. As a four-sport star, Jackie attended Muir Technical High School and Pasadena Junior College. After his graduation, Robinson transferred to UCLA, becoming the school’s first student athlete to earn varsity letters in all four major sports.
In 1942, Robinson joined the Army in Fort Hood, Texas. Despite the racism he encountered, Robinson eventually triumphed over an unjust court-martial hearing and was given an honorable discharge.
Rose Robinson said she believed that the Army difficulties helped prepare him for the ordeal of Major League baseball.
Robinson then spent a year as the athletic director at Sam Houston College before receiving offers to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. The Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey broached the idea for him to play on the Dodgers’ minor leaguer team in Montreal where he earned the league’s Most Valuable Player honors.
It was when he was called-up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. During his ten seasons, he was the first African-American to win a batting title. He was also the first black to be named a league MVP and he led the Dodgers to six pennants and a World Series title.
Robinson also was the first black player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and his number 42 is the only one permanently retired.
Ironically, Langill said Robinson was not even looking to play professional baseball.
“I think that for the impact he made as far as his major league career, it was never his goal to play Major League Baseball,” Langill said. “It was never on the horizon because after the war he was just looking for a job. He was trying to maybe become a coach or an athletic director and when that doesn’t work out, you go back to what you do best, and he plays professional baseball not as the dream to be in the major leagues but to make money. When he’s playing for the Kansas City Monarchs, he has no idea that Branch Rickey is scouting. He has no idea what Branch Rickey would like to try. And these two forces accidentally come together in ’45 and changed the world.”
Jackie Robinson also was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. called him a legend and a symbol in his own time.
Langill summed up the evening and Jackie Robinson’s true legacy, saying it wasn’t just baseball.
“Here we are 100 years later,” Langill said. “It’s just a time for everybody to reflect, and you really can’t look at him just as a great baseball player. You can’t look at him just as great Dodger. You just have to look at him as an outstanding man, a person of great character, a great American and something that goes beyond baseball and sports.”
The free event was on the eve of Black History Month. It was sponsored by the South Pasadena Public Library, the Friends of the South Pasadena Public Library, and the Lucille and Edward R. Roybal Foundation.
Library Director Steve Fjeldsted contributed to this report.