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Black History meets baseball at the Jackie Robinson Museum

Black History meets baseball at the Jackie Robinson Museum

It’s the visual equivalent of a home run. A detailed, 1/64 scale model of Ebbets Field glows in front of a contoured LED tile wall at New York’s Jackie Robinson Museum. Interactive touch screens invite visitors to play video highlights from the all-star career of this African American icon, who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ebbets Field was demolished in 1960 after serving as the Dodgers’ home stadium for 47 years. Yet, Robinson — whose jersey number provides the title of the 2013 bio-pic 42 starring Chadwick Boseman lives on in so many ways at this new 19,380-square-foot museum in lower Manhattan. 

After a July 26, 2022 ribbon-cutting ceremony, it opened to the public on September 5. The project was 14 years in the making.

A legacy in baseball and beyond

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“The point of the museum is to understand his whole story and legacy,” said Jackie Robinson Museum vice-president Ivo Philbert. “[Robinson’s 100-year-old widow] Rachel didn’t want it to just be a shrine to Jackie’s baseball career, but to also showcase all the other work he did. People come here and say: ‘I had no idea!’”

Whether you have a passion for sports, entrepreneurship, civil rights or Black History Month, there is something exciting and compelling to discover here. The Jackie Robinson Museum, which cost about $40 million to build, owns some 4,500 artifacts. These range from Robinson’s 1947 Rookie of the Year and 1949 MVP trophies to his World War II military uniform and his 1984 Presidential Medal of Freedom. Items rotate on and off display.

Robinson was an unbelievably productive human being despite passing away from a heart attack at age 53. Born to a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia in 1919, the 5-foot-11-inch, 195-pound prodigy first garnered national attention by lettering in four sports — baseball, basketball, football and track and field — at UCLA in the late 1930s.

With an engaging combination of films, memorabilia and interpretive text, the high-ceilinged, airy museum vividly lays out Robinson’s timeline. It intersperses his biography with important milestones in Black U.S. history, like the NAACP boycott of the 1915 D.W. Griffith film Birth of a Nation and the 1925 unionization of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Winning the fight against discrimination

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The exhibitions don’t sugarcoat the racism that Robinson faced daily. His harrowing trip with Rachel to a 1946 Dodgers spring training camp in Florida comes alive in a multimedia presentation with this accompanying text: “After being delayed for 12 hours at the New Orleans airport and removed from the flight from Pensacola to Daytona Beach, they were forced to take a Greyhound bus for the remainder of the trip and to sit in the back of the bus.”

Even more shocking is the section describing how Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman ordered his players to hurl racial slurs at Robinson. Chapman said he would fine anyone who refrained.

However, the museum also spotlights plenty of positive relationships. On display is a note from Dodgers manager Branch Rickey (portrayed by Harrison Ford in 42), who told screenwriter Arthur Mann, “We hired Robinson because we wanted to win a pennant.” It counterbalanced any suggestions that Rickey made Robinson MLB’s first Black player solely for publicity or a human rights statement.

Jackie Robinson: activist and businessman

A colorful poster promotes the 1950 movie The Jackie Robinson Story — written by Mann, directed by Alfred Green, and starred Robinson as himself. That hints at how Robinson — a man ahead of his time — was able to leverage his athletic prowess to make himself a brand.

The museum documents how he landed a radio show on WMCA (New York), published a remarkable five autobiographies and became a vice-president with the Chock Full o’Nuts coffee company in 1961 after retiring from baseball.

Meanwhile, the nuances of Robinson’s political activism — overlapping with the likes of Paul Robeson, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and both the Democratic and Republican Parties — could easily fill a book. He even founded a Black-owned bank in Harlem and a construction company for low-income housing.

Discussing the U.S. business community in a 1969 interview, Robinson said: “Until we have the full participation of all minorities, this will never be a truly strong nation.”

Great lessons to carry away

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Shop 42, the museum gift shop, shows how his change-the-world approach influenced his children. You can buy a copy of The Hero Two Doors Down, a children’s book about Robinson by his daughter Sharon, or a bag of his son David’s Tanzanian-grown coffee to benefit rural coffee farmers.

Bottom line: the Jackie Robinson Museum hits it out of the park. Given his broad cultural impact, it’s no wonder that his jersey remains among MLB’s top best-sellers and that “Jackie Robinson Dunks” is a top Google search term with people seeking out the 2022-released Nike sneakers.

Plan on spending at least 90 minutes at the Jackie Robinson Museum. In terms of visuals alone, it’s a true sensory banquet. Some 450 hours of archival video footage and 40,000-odd images commemorate this 1955 World Series champion and 1962 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Museum admission is $18 for adults and $15 for seniors (62+) and youth (5-17). Opening hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m, Thursday to Sunday.

Jackie Robinson Museum
75 Varick St.
New York, NY
Phone: 1-866-454-3772
Web: jackierobinsonmuseum.org

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