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Scott Ostler

A Compelling Look at an American Life Worth Recalling

September 09, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

Jackie Robinson has come home, in style and with dignity and, naturally, as the star of the show.

The kid who grew up in Pasadena and attended UCLA is back in the neighborhood.

Jackie Robinson died in 1972, but his memory is making a guest appearance at the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park.

The touring exhibition is titled "Jackie Robinson: An American Journey."

It's a real good exhibition, but not perfect. To create the proper mood for a tour of Robinson's life and times, the exhibition would have to be housed in a crummy old building, with a too-high admission price, bad lighting, no air conditioning, and maybe several menacing security guards to keep a constant eye on you and make sure you don't step out of line.

Since Robinson's life was a struggle, wire to wire, you need to use your imagination to get beyond the beautiful building, free admission and the artistic and well-developed presentation, in order to step into the man's shoes.

Everyone knows the basic tale of Jackie Robinson, sports pioneer. But this exhibit brings some new energy to a story that shouldn't ever get old. You walk through his life. You see photos of baby Jackie and his sister and three brothers, brought by train from Georgia to Pasadena in 1920 by their mother, Mallie.

She moves them into an all-white neighborhood. The neighbors on Pepper Street try to buy out the new folks, then sign petitions to have them removed. The neighbors call the cops when one of the Robinson boys skates on the sidewalk. Mallie never once loses her cool, never once shows fear.

Hmmmm. Wonder if any of that lady's spunk rubbed off on any of the kids?

You read about and see photos of Jackie's UCLA athletic career, then his brief Army career. He gets into big trouble for refusing to obey a bus driver's order to move to the rear of the bus. It takes a court martial trial to determine that Lt. Robinson outranks the bus driver.

You move onto a video history of the Negro leagues, see an early all-Black team try to pass itself off as Cuban, chattering in make-believe Spanish. You read Quincy Trouppe, Negro League teammate of Robinson, saying, "With Jackie's temper being the way it was, it didn't seem likely that a major league team would be willing to take a chance on him."

You re-learn all about the signing with the Dodgers, and the rough rookie year, 1947. Not that all the problems ended then. You see a fan letter, written to Jackie in 1951 by someone in Cincinnati, promising to kill him if he tries to play against the Reds.

In a video, Jackie's sister recalls how he phoned home to Pasadena before that game, so if he got shot his family wouldn't be surprised to hear it on the news.

In a video, his sister tells how the family gathered around the radio to listen to that game.

"We sat there," she says, "just waiting to hear the shots ring out."

The only shot that day was a home run by guess who.

In 1955, hard-headed Jackie is still bustin' down barriers. "Just that summer," you read, "one of the most divisive barriers had fallen, when the last segregated hotel on their (the Dodgers') circuit offered rooms to Robinson and Campanella, in response to Robinson's flat refusal to be put cross-town from his team ever again."

You see the often-overlooked story of post-ball Jackie, the tough-as-nails civil rights battler.

You see Jackie during the 1960 Presidential campaign, warmly shaking hands with--Richard Nixon? Yep. Jackie jumps on the Nixon bandwagon that year.

You read Jackie's quote: "I do not consider my decision to back Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy . . . one of my finer ones. It was a sincere one, however, at the time."

Hey, the guy is human.

You read scrapbook newspaper clippings, like columnist Jimmy Cannon describing Robinson: "You're a complicated man persecuted by slanderous myths, using anger as a confederate."

You hear a tape, from Robinson's funeral, of Martin Luther King's eulogy, thundering the rafters.

You read of Branch Rickey urging Robinson, "Be daring, be daring!"

If you come at the right time, you can see the old full-length movie, "The Jackie Robinson Story," staring Jackie Robinson. Or you can catch local actor Tommy Ford's performance, a monologue of a long-ago Negro League teammate talking about Jackie.

The exhibition, produced by the Jackie Robinson Foundation and sponsored by Coca-Cola USA, will be in Los Angeles through Nov. 15. The museum is open seven days a week.

If you go, take a jacket. Because of the air conditioning, you might tend to get a chill now and then.

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