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Inspiring Then, Inspiring Still

Fifty years ago, Jackie Robinson came up to bat and made history. Younger generations, new books and expected films are testament to a man who fought racism and won.

September 17, 1996|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a shelf behind a desk in Daron Campbell's plush Encino office sits a well-worn copy of a book titled "I Never Had It Made."

It's the same book that Laurie Dickey displays proudly in her Westchester apartment and that nearly 400 other top high school scholars have mined for wisdom and strength over the past 20 years.

"It moves you," Dickey says. "It inspires you."

And, like its author, it apparently changes everyone it touches. The book is the 1972 autobiography of Jackie Robinson, who, in a life cut short by a heart attack at 53, managed to integrate both professional baseball and the top ranks of the Republican Party; campaigned for civil rights and half a dozen presidential candidates; and pried open the doors of business and high finance to people of color.

"Jackie Robinson beat down doors in a lot of places almost simultaneously," says Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. "I think he will be remembered primarily as a ballplayer and for breaking the color barrier . . . but we have to focus on the totality of Jackie Robinson and all that he accomplished, all that he did.

"He had to be twice as good just to be proven equal. And he did it with grace and dignity."

Nearly 24 years after his death--and just months away from the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking major league debut--Robinson's legacy continues to reach from the ball field to the boardroom, providing opportunities for politicians and pitchers as well as bankers and bakers.

But Robinson, the grandson of a slave, did far more than just break down barriers for others: He challenged people to overcome obstacles of their own. So at a time when affirmative action and other gains of the civil rights struggle are under attack, Robinson's quiet dignity, courage and leadership continue to serve as an inspiration to people of all races.

"Just about every week somebody stops me and . . . what they want to do is tell me their story," says Rachel Robinson, his widow. "And their stories--it's like Jack has had some impact on their lives that doesn't have anything to do with baseball. What they want to say is how they drew something from his life and his behavior.

"One of the things he was very clear about was that being the first was wonderful, but it didn't mean anything unless there was a second and a third and a fourth. He would get excitement from just any breakthrough. He would not have said [it was because] of his breakthrough or his behavior. But it somehow was connected, I think."

Those connections--from the bitter racism Jackie experienced growing up in Pasadena, to his record-setting four-sport careers at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA, through the triumph of his induction into the baseball Hall of Fame--are retraced by Rachel Robinson in an emotional look back titled "Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait" (Harry N. Abrams), expected in Southland bookstores next week.

In June, daughter Sharon Robinson released "Stealing Home" (HarperCollins), a painfully frank memoir that paints an admiring portrait of her father while at the same time recounting the toll his life's mission took on her family.

In an attempt to get out from under the considerable shadow her father cast, Sharon was engaged at 17, a battered wife at 18 and divorced at 19. "I think I was looking for a way to escape," she says now. "It changed my name. I could kind of go into obscurity and try to figure who I was."

She married three more times--and divorced twice more--before finally finding that peace. And at that she was luckier than older brother Jackie Jr., a talented athlete who was so intimidated by his father's fame that he gave up organized sports as a youngster and ran away to the Army as a teenager. Jackie Jr. returned from Vietnam a junkie and then, shortly after kicking his addiction, died in a 1971 auto accident. A younger brother, David, lives in Tanzania, where he owns a coffee farm.

The Robinsons' books are simply the opening volley of what's sure to become a fusillade of Robinson retrospectives between now and April 15, the 50th anniversary of his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Another book and at least two movies are in the works, and Sharon Robinson worries that her father's true persona could be lost in the flood of revisionist histories.

"Forget trying to define my father by how other people defined him. Let's look at this words," she cautions. "And in his words you look at that one statement he made: A life is only important in the impact it has on others. It wasn't about a baseball legacy or getting trophies or anything like that. It was about the next generation being committed to serving other people."

*

The house where Jackie Robinson grew up was razed long ago, part of an urban renewal project that did little to renew the tired neighborhoods of northwest Pasadena. In its place a simple plaque, often covered with dirt, remembers a family that once lived in a house that no longer exists.

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