JACKIE ROBINSON JR. had defeated a drug problem only to die in a car accident in 1971. His brother, David, said the letters to his father started soon after, " . . . threats and insults and taunts that, 'Your son deserved to die.' So I started going out to the mailbox in the morning. You could tell the letters by the handwriting."
One can only imagine the angry scrawl. David was in his late teens then. It is impossible to put yourself in the same spot - the son of a legend, privy to all of the prejudices and the pressures borne by major league baseball's first black player - and make any accurate predictions about outlooks or outcomes. Who could even guess what it must have felt like to be Jackie Robinson's youngest son?
As it turned out, a life of social activism lay ahead for David, including his organizing of a coffee-farmers cooperative in Tanzania. He said: "It was a wonderful era to grow up in. In the '60s, the measure of a man wasn't the money they made, it was the deeds that they did. Being Jackie Robinson's son, growing up in that era, your eyes are opened to and on the social issues."
David's beard is gray. His tone is earnest. His message is plain. Here at Citizens Bank Park last night to celebrate the 60th anniversary of his father breaking baseball's color line in 1947 - a celebration delayed a week by rain - David Robinson made it very clear that he does not believe baseball is doing enough to support the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded by Rachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, in 1973 to provide scholarship assistance to African-American students.
"Not everybody knows," David said. "That not everybody knows is reflected by the fact that less than 40 percent of the baseball teams are supporting the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Less than 10 percent of the players are honoring the man who changed the specific game, for them and for the society.
"Life is complex. People don't know. People forget. This is an opportunity to say that the foundation is the living legacy of the man that we're honoring today. To have the ceremony without having the ongoing action does not have the same meaning . . . It does not challenge the issues that we are honoring the man for."
There are currently 266 students at 93 colleges and universities receiving aid, and the foundation said that $1.8 million is being awarded to students this fall. Still, David said, that represents only 50 scholarships from 5,000 applicants.
Speaking later, he amended his original statement and said that fewer than 5 percent of major league players support the foundation. The number is both stunning and unsurprising (while the lack of support from the teams is just outrageous).
Jackie Robinson once said, in the months before he died in 1972, that he picked his favorite players based upon their social consciences. While there are exceptions, well, good luck with that today.
"I'll just say that they need to be reminded," David said. "They remembered the day in a great way. You see all the players wearing 42. Across the league, every year, there is going to be a Jackie Robinson Day. It's just not enough. It doesn't honor the man fully and it doesn't make us social changers. We're just historians honoring the past. We're not changing problems that exist and we can do that."
That the average professional athlete today is financially set goes without saying. That the average professional athlete today never opens his mouth about anything resembling a social issue is also obvious. Just remember back to what a novelty it seemed to be this spring when it was reported that Chase Utley has lent public support to an environmental group concerned about global warming.
Athletes today just don't get involved. Michael Jordan once famously refused to appear in a photo op in a close North Carolina Senate race in which an African-American was running against conservative Jesse Helms. Jordan's reasoning? "Republicans buy sneakers, too," he said.
David Robinson thought about that for a second when the story was recounted. Then, he said:
"You rise or sink in a society. You don't live alone. The society that you neglect will be the society that impacts you and your children. You can have all the money and all the status that there is, but your children or you, one day, are going to be slapped hard in the face by some social realities. You might just wake up to mistakes in the position you held in the past.
"The issue is not as clear today as it was in '47, but everybody has the opportunity to do good . . . You don't just have to be an entertainer. There's nothing wrong with being an entertainer. There's nothing wrong with putting dollars in your pocket to support your family. But you can be more . . . "
From Jackie Robinson's son, then, came the challenge - because 42 was more than just a number. *
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