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Jackie Robinson: Recalling a Legend

April 06, 1987|GARY LIBMAN

Months after surgeons replaced the kneecap that had carried him to a silver Olympic medal in 1936, Mack Robinson leans on a bookcase for support as he descends the stairs from his kitchen to his den.

The man who finished second to Jesse Owens in the Olympic 200-meter race five decades ago can stand for only a short time.

Robinson, 72, also takes insulin to fight diabetes, the disease that plagued his pioneering, baseball-playing brother, Jackie, before his death from a heart attack in 1972.

Other Robinsons

Elsewhere in Pasadena, Jackie Robinson's other brother, Edgar, 76, lives in a rest home, while his sister, Willa Mae Walker, 71, worries that her $740 monthly income from Social Security and pensions falls below her expenses.

This month, however, the Robinsons will have a chance to forget their infirmities and other concerns. On Saturday, they will ride to Dodger Stadium where, in a nationally televised pregame ceremony, the Dodgers will honor Jackie Robinson for breaking baseball's color line in 1947.

Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, who grew up near the Los Angeles Coliseum, will fly in from New York to join her brother, Raymond Isum, 62, of Los Angeles and the Robinsons for the ceremony.

When the Dodgers play the San Francisco Giants after the ceremony, Robinson's uniform number, 42, will be emblazoned on second base. Every other major league team will play its opening home game with the number painted on second base.

After Saturday's game, Rachel Robinson will return to New York for the opening of an exhibition, "Jackie Robinson: An American Journey," at The New-York Historical Society on April 17. The show is scheduled to appear at an undetermined site in Los Angeles next September.

The exhibition is sponsored by the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which provides scholarships for black college students. Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who directed that the 1987 baseball season be dedicated to Jackie Robinson's memory, will help lead a campaign to raise $2 million for the foundation.

Career Average of .311

Robinson hit .311 during a 10-year major-league career from 1947 to 1956 and was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and the continuing tributes please his relatives. "I don't think one could feel any greater than to see someone honored in your family," Mack Robinson said.

Part of their pleasure derives from knowing that they suffered through the 1947 season with their trailblazing brother. Willa Mae Walker recalls that Jackie frequently telephoned that year to say that bigots had threatened his life.

"He would call and tell us what was happening so if it did happen, we wouldn't have to find out about it in the newspaper," Walker said.

"We were scared to death. We didn't even think about going back East to watch him. In one game he had received three threats that said if he played, he would be dead by the third inning. We sat here and listened to the game on the radio all day waiting for a gunshot."

While they worried about threats against Robinson in the East, the family encountered problems here. Walker worked in a hospital and said that when some patients found out that she was Jackie Robinson's sister, they asked for another nurse.

Problem Not Unusual

"I told them I had nothing to do with Jack being signed up to play baseball," she said, "but if they wanted to get someone else, to go to the desk and do it."

Walker said racial problems were not unusual when her mother arrived in Pasadena from Georgia in 1920 with 14-month-old Jackie and four other children.

Deserted by her husband, she worked as a domestic to feed her family. By 1923, Mallie Robinson had saved enough money to buy a house on Pepper Street in a white neighborhood near Fair Oaks Avenue and Washington Boulevard.

Walker recalled that when the family moved into its home, whites tried to buy them out. The plan fizzled when a white resident declared the Robinsons were good neighbors.

Jackie Robinson's brother, Frank, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1939, and eventually the rest of the children moved out and wreckers tore down the home to build a housing project. All that remains is a barely noticeable sidewalk plaque that says Jackie Robinson lived at the site.

Walker, a widow with three children and 17 grandchildren, moved into a home in 1945 that she still occupies. Because of her financial situation, she uses utilities sparingly and recently waited more than three weeks to fix a broken glass pane in the front door.

A framed poster of the Jackie Robinson postage stamp hangs in the living room, the only clue in the house that she is his sister.

A mile away Mack Robinson sits in an easy chair in his den surrounded by pictures of himself, his brother and his 10 children. His wife of 32 years, Delano, fusses over him and reminds him to drink juice for his diabetes. The two met when Robinson took a trip to see his brother play in New York in 1954.

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