Rachel Robinson, the widow of baseball pioneer and Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the 49th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game on Tuesday.
Robinson will be in Washington, D.C., to promote the work of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she founded in 1973, shortly after her husband’s death. The foundation provides four-year college scholarships to needy minority youths, and recent scholarship recipients are expected to join Robinson at the ceremony.
The Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game is the annual grudge match between Congressional Democrats and Republicans, and for the third year in a row, it will be played at Nationals Park. After losing eight straight games, Democrats prevailed 15-10 last year — largely buoyed by younger Members who were elected in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008. The game raises money for the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
But frequently, the game attracts baseball celebrities, who attend to advance their favorite charitable causes. In recent years, St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock have thrown out the first ball, and Frank Howard, the Washington Senators slugger from the 1960s and ’70s who was the biggest D.C. baseball sensation of the past several decades until Stephen Strasburg hit town, has also put in appearances. Bowie Kuhn, the late commissioner of baseball who was a native Washingtonian, attended several times and even served as home plate umpire for the first inning of the 1969 game.
But as baseball royalty goes, it doesn’t get much better than Rachel Robinson — even if she is royalty by marriage.
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and had a storied 10-year playing career. He was the National League’s Rookie of the Year and then won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, when he slugged 16 home runs, drove in 124 runs, stole 37 bases and had an eye-popping .342 batting average. With his slashing, aggressive style of play, Robinson led the Dodgers to six World Series, and they won the championship in 1955.
More important than his on-the-field exploits, Robinson is a historic figure. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed Robinson and nurtured his career, wasn’t just looking for a star athlete to become the first African-American player in the major leagues. He wanted someone tough and educated who could endure the taunts of white fans and opposing players, the hostility of his own teammates, and the loneliness of having to eat and sleep in segregated accommodations in many cities when his team was on the road.
Robinson took out his frustrations on the baseball diamond — but the pressure took its toll. He retired from the game following the 1956 season, after being traded to the Dodgers’ archrival, the New York Giants. He was 37, but he looked and felt older. Although he went on to become an executive at Chock Full o’ Nuts, the coffee and restaurant company, a co-founder of a Harlem bank and a civil rights activist, he died in 1972 at age 53.
In tribute to Robinson, Major League Baseball has retired his uniform number, 42, though a few veteran players, including the Yankees’ star relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, have been allowed to keep the No. 42 until they retire.
Rachel Robinson, who met her future husband in 1941, when they were students at the University of California, Los Angeles, created the Jackie Robinson Foundation just a few months after his death. Since 1973, the foundation has raised about $43 million and provided $21 million in direct scholarships to 1,400 minority college students.
Rachel Robinson also had a career as a nurse, and she became a professor at the Yale School of Nursing and later the director of nursing at the Connecticut Mental Health Center.
As Jackie Robinson’s exploits recede from the national consciousness — even some modern-day black ballplayers concede that they don’t know much about him — Rachel Robinson has worked hard to keep his memory alive. At age 87, she still regularly makes public appearances, and is unafraid to speak out on the issues of the day.
She should be comfortable appearing before dozens of Members of Congress on Tuesday night. Asked in a 2007 USA Today interview whether the U.S. could ever become a color-blind society, Robinson replied that it may be possible decades from now.
“A lot depends on the leadership we get in the country,” she said. “What kind of president we get, what kind of Congress we have, what kind of leadership we have at the state and local level has a lot to do with the progress we make. There’s always a tendency to retrench and go backwards instead of forward, so you have to factor in those influences to predict the future.”
The game is at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Nationals Park. To purchase tickets online, go to congressionalbaseball.org.