Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson
Jackie’s widow celebrates 100th birthday
Right after creating Adam, God declared, “It is not good that man should be alone.”
Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey had the same idea when he brought Jackie Robinson on board to integrate Major League Baseball. Knowing the African American ballplayer would need someone to lean on as he dealt with racism day in and day out, Rickey let Robinson bring his wife, Rachel, to spring training in Florida in 1946, roughly a year before Robinson shattered MLB’s color barrier. She was the only player’s wife to whom the Dodgers organization granted that privilege.
Rachel Robinson celebrated her 100th birthday Tuesday at MLB’s All-Star Game. Fittingly, the game took place at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Not only is the city the current home of Jackie’s former employer, but it’s also near Pasadena where the Georgia-born Jackie grew up. It’s also where Rachel and Jackie met when he was a four-sport star at UCLA and she a young nursing student.
In case you care, the American League All-Stars defeated the National League for the ninth straight year, winning 3-2 on the strength of two towering homers in the top of the fourth inning.
Genesis 2:18, above, is incomplete: In the second part God states, “I will make him a helper comparable to him.” When it came to enduring the slings and arrows of racism, the former Rachel Isum couldn’t have been more perfect for her husband in that regard.
“They were abused, isolated, insulted, threatened with death, alone,” reads a story on the New England Historical Society’s website. “Alone, that is, except for each other.”
Rachel got a taste of the indignities to come when she accompanied Jackie to that first spring training. Traveling by plane to Florida, the couple found themselves bumped off their flight in favor of white passengers during a stopover in New Orleans. Eventually, Rachel and Jackie made it to Pensacola, roughly 450 miles from the Dodgers’ training camp. However, after boarding a bus for the trek across the state to Daytona Beach, Rachel wept while watching her husband obey the driver’s order to move to the rear of the bus, something he had once angrily refused to do while serving in the Army in Fort Hood, Texas, during World War II.
They arrived late to spring training. Things didn’t get better once they got there: Unable to stay with his white teammates at hotels or eat with them at restaurants, Jackie was in for what could have been a very lonely experience. The Dodgers thus let Rachel travel with him to other teams’ spring training sites so he could have some much-needed company.
Eventually, Jackie earned a spot with the Dodgers’ top minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, and after leading the Royals to a league championship, he made the Dodgers’ roster in 1947.
No matter what hateful treatment fans, players—including teammates—and others directed at Jackie, the fiercely protective Rachel served as a constant and much-needed lifeline of support: “Rachel made sure to attend every home game, after which she and Jackie walked back together, reliving the highs and lows of the day, before putting it behind them as they entered the sanctuary of their home,” Tim Ott wrote for Biography.com. “Occasionally, she joined the team for road trips, during which time, she wrote, she sat up very straight in the stands, ‘as if my back could absorb the nefarious outbursts and prevent them from reaching him.’”
With Rachel by his side every step of the way, Jackie overcame some early struggles following his major league debut, leading the Dodgers to the 1947 World Series and earning National League Rookie of the Year honors. He went on to a 10-year Hall of Fame career, retiring in 1956.
Through it all, Jackie was quick to give his devoted wife the credit she deserved. Jackie and Rachel were married for 26 years before he died in 1972 at the age of 53. As noted in filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary about Jackie’s life, Jackie regularly used the term “we” when discussing his accomplishments, even when describing something he’d done on the field.
There was a reason for that: “We moved to and from the ballpark to home almost as one,” Rachel told Sports Illustrated’s Kostya Kennedy in 2013, shortly before the movie 42, about her husband’s life, premiered. (Nicole Behairie played Rachel in the film.) “We shared the work, the feelings, the stress, and the irrationality of our seemingly defenseless position.”
Rachel’s quiet strength and dignity weren’t lost on Dodgers management, either. “If Jackie was smart enough to pick her as his wife,” team executive Buzzie Bavasi told Rickey after observing Rachel at a Royals game, “he’s the guy you want.”
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