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ON BASEBALL

Her memories of Robinson truly golden

She remembered that she had dressed their infant son, Jackie, in a light blue overcoat, which would have been sufficient for their native California but was no match for the bracing April afternoon in Brooklyn when her husband changed history.

"Roy Campanella's mother-in-law put him under her fur coat," Rachel Robinson said of that long-ago day in Ebbetts Field, "and I ran out to the hot dog stand to see if they would heat his bottles."

That was nearly 58 years ago. Rachel Robinson long ago buried her husband, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, who died in 1972, and her son, Jackie, who died a year earlier in a car accident. But the memories, they seem to intensify with time.

"Very, very much so," she said by phone yesterday, three days after she had stood beneath the ornate splendor of the Capitol Rotunda, in the company of President Bush and a host of politicians and baseball executives, to receive the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of her late husband.

"The coloration changes," she said. "The emphasis changes, but the memories remain very vivid. That first trip to Florida for spring training, which was so awful, I remember every aspect of it. But gradually, I put the bad things behind me. I don't hold on to the same emotions I held at the time. The anger, the disappointment, the disillusionment, they go away, because if they don't, they eat away at your personality."

What many people don't know about her husband, the man who stood up to the most withering pressure to break baseball's color line for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was his humility.

"The character they saw on the baseball field was an aggressive, competitive person who was going to win at all costs," she said. "And that was a side of him. Any kind of contest, if we played gin rummy, he was going to win. But basically he was a very humble man, a trait I cherish in an individual. He never sought any personal glory.

"I believe his humility came from his religious beliefs. He believed in God, that all good things came from God. I remember he'd get on his knees and pray every night, especially early in our marriage. That disappeared later, maybe because I didn't join him."

What would have his reaction been to receiving the gold medal, the highest honor the government can give a civilian?

"He would have been delighted," she said.

The irony is not lost on Rachel Robinson that the Red Sox, the last team to integrate their roster (a dozen years after Robinson), took the lead in promoting Robinson for the medal, persuading two Massachusetts Democrats, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Richard Neal, to co-sponsor the bill. George Mitrovich, a former press aide to Robert Kennedy and a close friend of Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, gave the bill much of its momentum, while Sox VP Charles Steinberg, who once had been dazzled by a teen-aged Theo Epstein's research on the Negro leagues, has made Robinson's birthday a focal point of celebration and instruction at Fenway Park.

"Did they want to make up for the past?" she said. "I wouldn't speak to their motivation. I'm hoping they're trying to do things in a way more consistent with the 21st century. This is new ownership, so I don't think they're trying to make up for it, but maybe they see recognition as part of the recovery."

Rachel was not present when Jackie Robinson tried out for the Red Sox in 1945, two years before that cold afternoon in Brooklyn.

"But I remember when he came back," she said, "how irate he was that it was such a charade. There was no one officially from the team watching the tryout. He felt exploited and humiliated by that."

The story endures that a voice from the stands in Fenway Park shouted, "Get that nigger off the field." Rachel Robinson has heard that story.

"We've never had a way to verify it," she said. "If Jack heard it, he never told me about it.

"But I heard similar things in Philadelphia and Baltimore, people yelling at him, racial epithets.

"I always felt they were yelling at my back. How do you protect someone you love? That was my fantasy, that I could somehow ward that off just by being there. I never turned around once to acknowledge what they were doing. That was the only way to handle it and maintain your dignity. That had to be your answer to their ridiculousness."

In 1946, Robinson played in the minor leagues, for the Dodgers' farm team in Montreal. The manager was Clay Hopper, a native of Mississippi, who confronted Dodgers president Branch Rickey that first spring and asked, "Do you really think a nigger's a human being?" That summer, Robinson led Montreal to the championship of the International League, and Hopper shook his hand. "You're a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman," he told Robinson. "It's been wonderful having you on the team."

At last week's medal ceremony, with 82-year-old Rachel Robinson sitting regally next to President Bush, Kerry spoke to the significance of Robinson's honor.

"This reminds us of the road traveled," he said, "and the road still to be traveled."

Rachel Robinson said she has no doubts that her husband's memory will not fade.

"My bet's all on the young people, that things like this will inspire them," she said. "Nothing alone can ensure a memory is institutionalized, but the medal, the things that we do as [the Jackie Robinson] Foundation, I don't have any qualms that he will be remembered.

"I am encouraged. There is still so much more to do, but we have come far from the time when we were dehumanized in so many ways. Knowing how that affected me personally as well as my race, my children and grandchildren already are the beneficiaries of that change."

Jackie Robinson endured. A few ounces of gold can never square accounts for the price he paid. But maybe it can reflect the pride and passion of the ballplayer forever dancing off the base, eyes defiant, body coiled to run at any moment, daring anyone to stop him, for eternity.

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