When 87-year-old Rachel Robinson takes the mound at Nationals Park before tonight’s 49th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game for the ceremonial first pitch, she knows the soft dirt at her feet and cheering crowd will evoke strong memories.
But Jackie Robinson’s widow won’t be dwelling on her husband’s batting average or his claim to the Hall of Fame. She’ll be assessing society’s progress against racial discrimination — from “Jack’s” eyes.
While many people celebrate Jackie Robinson for his award-winning, record-breaking baseball skills, his wife remembers him in a different way: A decade before Rosa Parks famously took her stance against discrimination on an Alabama bus, he’d been excoriated for sitting in the “whites’ spots,” too. Throughout his career, he endured taunts and death threats for joining a baseball team of white players. Foremost in his wife’s memory, Robinson was a freedom fighter and an activist.
In hopes of preserving his legacy, Rachel Robinson founded the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a college scholarship program for minority students, one year after her husband’s death in 1972. With the mission of promoting education for marginalized minorities, the nonprofit has donated $43 million in scholarships and support to more than 1,400 African-American, Hispanic, Vietnamese and other minority students with great financial need.
The foundation’s work will be showcased during the game, as Congressional Democrats look to build a winning streak and Republicans hope to avenge last year’s loss, their first since 2000. The game will raise money for the Washington Literacy Council and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
“Both my husband, Jack, and I have always felt that education is the key to a full life,” Robinson said in an interview. But affordability for many minority students is a challenge, she said.
In hopes of leveling the playing field, the foundation grants four-year $7,500 scholarships to undergraduates and $10,000 awards to graduate students. Foundation President Della Baeza said recipients of the funds are “bright students with tremendous motivation.” About half are from single-parent households; many have unemployed parents.
“For most students, these scholarships make the difference as to whether they’ll go to college or not,” Baeza said. She’s had students who were once homeless and lived out of family cars.
Baeza said 3,000 to 4,000 minority students apply each year for about 80 slots. In addition to the financial benefits of the scholarships, the foundation boasts a “deep-rooted mentoring program.” Students are connected with mentors and given career counseling. They learn how to network, negotiate in conflict situations and handle their finances.
“We have these students for four years,” Baeza said. “They become our surrogate charges here, part of our family.”
Baeza said some students meet their future employers through the program. Sixty percent find internships through in-house connections. Carol Guerrero — the student who will accompany Robinson to the mound and throw the first pitch at tonight’s game — found her government relations internship at Northrop Grumman Corp. with the foundation’s help.
Robinson’s brainchild has seen tremendous success with a 97 percent graduate rate of its scholars, more than twice that of the nation’s graduation rate for minorities. Last year, it had 248 scholars enrolled at 92 universities in 31 states and in Washington, D.C.
Robinson believes her husband would be proud of those numbers, even though his last thoughts — on his deathbed — were not so positive. “He was disappointed in society when he passed,” she said. “There had been progress, but also so much retrenchment of the racial divide.”
But “society has come a long way” in shattering the racial divide, she said. That’s one of the reasons she’s such a fan of Washington, a place she calls “a power-house” of change.
Not surprisingly, she’s a big fan of President Barack Obama.
“Having lived through the civil rights movement and Jack’s experiences, I hardly dared expect that someday there would be an African-American president,” she said. “It was a pleasant surprise.”
Although she’s no newcomer to D.C. — she’s danced with Lyndon Johnson, had lunch with Ronald Reagan and received the Congressional Gold Medal for her husband from George W. Bush — Robinson is looking forward to her trip and the game. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of her husband’s legacy and the progress America has made. And although she thinks “we’ve still got a ways to go,” she knows that her husband would be proud if he were on the mound with her tonight.
The game is at 7 tonight at Nationals Park. To purchase tickets online, go to congressionalbaseball.org.