After the Brooklyn Dodgers played in Milwaukee in 1954, a chubby 9-year-old boy ran up to Jackie Robinson outside County Stadium and introduced himself.
"Do you remember me?" Ron Rabinovitz asked. "My father wrote you a letter."
"Yes, I do," Robinson said. Rabinovitz' father, an attorney, arrived and told his son that a famous baseball player couldn't remember one of thousands of letters he received from young fans.
"Yes, I do," Robinson said. "You wrote it on legal stationery."
Thus began an improbable relationship between an affluent, starry-eyed Midwestern boy and a talented, crusading black baseball player from a poor part of Pasadena.
For the better part of 20 years, until Robinson's death in 1972, the two wrote, talked on the phone and visited when Robinson appeared in Milwaukee or in Rabinovitz' hometown of Sheboygan, Wis., 50 miles north.
The relationship provided intimate looks at Robinson the baseball player.
"One time in Milwaukee (in 1955), he was playing left field and a ball got by him and rolled to the fence," said Rabinovitz, 41, now a manufacturers representative in Minneapolis.
"After the game he came up and I said, 'Tough play.' He said, 'Tough, hell. Sandy Amoros (another Dodger outfielder) could have had that. My legs are gone. If I had to do it all over, I would have played fewer sports than I did and saved my legs.' "
By most accounts, Robinson was a fierce player who intimidated the toughest of rivals. Yet his letters to Rabinovitz show a tender Robinson who treasured a boy's friendship and who could be concerned about his young friend's bar mitzvah, his choice of summer camp or his struggle to lose weight.
"I think he felt comfortable with us," Rabinovitz said, "We never asked him for anything. We didn't try to patronize him. We treated him as a human being instead of a hero."
The following excerpts are from some of the 18 letters Rabinovitz retains from his correspondence with Robinson, followed by a letter he wrote to Robinson's widow, Rachel, upon Robinson's death.
I will look forward to having dinner with you on May 6th. I am a little surprised you don't want to go to camp, as I believe what a boy learns from camps will be of great help to him later. I hope you make up your mind to go. . . .
. . . It's really nice getting letters from you because you always seem to have a nice word when it's needed. I guess everyone in the public's eye wants to have friends like you, and believe me, I am no exception. I can't tell you how much I appreciate you standing by me and I only hope I can always be worthy of your friendship. . . .
I don't know if I'll be around (to play) next year but I hope to. My legs are the big question and they seem o.k. so we are keeping our fingers crossed. . . .
My friend Ronnie,
I am glad to hear you have lost some weight, Ronnie. It works too much of a hardship on a person when he carries too much, so keep it up. I know it will make you feel much better. . . .
. . . I wish very much I could be with you for your bar mitzvah. I want to wish you all the best and sincerely hope everything goes very well. . . .
Sincerely, your friend
. . . Ronnie, one of the things that pleases me most is our friendship continues even though I am no longer connected with baseball. It is friends like you that make me feel everything that happened was worthwhile. I hope we do get a chance to see each other soon. It seems when people are as far apart as we are they have a tendency to forget. I hope we don't.
. . . I expect to be in Milwaukee on Feb. 28th for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. I hope you can come in and we can have a chat then. . . .
I imagine your Dad is about ready to get involved in the drive for the (1960) presidency. At this time it looks like Kennedy has a chance, which in my opinion would mean the Democrats would get the smallest Negro vote in the history of the party. I didn't mean to get into politics, just wanted a way to say hi to your folks. . . .
Thanks for your birthday wishes. At my age, however, Ronnie it's nicer to get the best wishes after the date passes (smile.)
I am glad too you're optimistic about the Dodgers. I am positive they will do better than last year but I don't know how much better. . . .
I have been and expect to be very busy during the coming year, but I am going to keep a close eye on the political scene. I was disappointed in the developments of the opening days of Congress and have once again returned to the ranks of the independents with leanings toward the Republicans. . . .
October 24, 1972
Dear Mrs. Robinson,
This morning I learned of the great loss we all share on the death of your husband. . . . I felt the need to express to you how much I loved and admired Jackie.