Sixty years and eight days after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the Phillies got their chance to honor not only a pioneer but also an era.
The team was rained out in its first attempt to celebrate the Brooklyn Dodgers great on Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. The Phillies conducted a pregame ceremony last night with the four surviving members of the Philadelphia Stars, whose players preceded Robinson in the Negro leagues.
The Phillies also honored members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen fighter squadron of World War II, whose presence served as a reminder of what was great about America's Greatest Generation.
As the retired African American airmen pointed out, life demanded much of all Americans during the Great Depression and World War II. But they fought those battles while relegated to second-class-citizen status, and fought for the right to die for their country.
All wearing Robinson's No. 42, the Phillies and Houston Astros saluted as the five Tuskegee Airmen stood at attention on the field at Citizens Bank Park.
"This is great honor to be here," said Eugene Richardson Jr., 81, one of the former Tuskegee Airmen on hand. "We are honoring a person that has followed in our footsteps. Jackie had . . . a lot of obstacles to face. We had a lot of obstacles to face. He persevered and became the star, as we did."
The airmen's contribution to American history was not lost on Duane Wise, a Lincoln University baseball player who was honored for being a former Anderson Monarch.
"The Tuskegee Airmen were the footstones that brought the change for African Americans to strive forward," said Wise, who with the Monarchs as an 11-year-old in 1997 made a 10-city barnstorming tour on a refurbished 1947 bus to commemorate Robinson's 50-year anniversary.
"Seeing these guys up here [last night] and knowing that they were around before Jackie Robinson is an inspiration and an opportunity to be what they were," Wise said.
Yesterday's tribute was a testament to how some things had changed in the last 60 seasons.
The Phillies' mistreatment of Robinson in 1947 is well-documented. You wouldn't have known that yesterday. Fans applauded as Robinson's son David Robinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
"It was an absolute honor to be here in Philadelphia," David Robinson said. "This was a wonderful tribute to my father. Opportunities like [this] give us a chance to both reflect on the past and celebrate and also be mindful that good times are still ahead."
Shortly after Robinson broke into the majors, the Phillies taunted and cursed him in two early-season series.
It is written that Robinson briefly had second thoughts about breaking the color barrier after his first encounter with the Phillies on April 22, 1947, in Brooklyn, days after he integrated the game.
For African American pilots, life in many ways was even tougher.
"It was very difficult," said Henry L. Moore, 86, a former Tuskegee Airman.
Moore, a former staff sergeant, never got the opportunity to fly a plane.
"I tried to enlist in the United States Army Air Corps and was refused," he said. "They told me, 'We have no place for Negroes.' So that was life."
The other airmen on hand "came along a little later than I did," he said. "They came up in 1942 and 1943, and then things had opened up."
Although they were able to fly, the airmen fought in segregated units until the armed forces were integrated in 1948.
"It's great to see Jackie Robinson carry on what we started in the military," Moore said.
To read our series on Jackie Robinson and view multimedia slide shows, go to http://go.philly.com/jackierobinson.EndText