WASHINGTON — With several former Negro League baseball players on hand to savor the memories, the Smithsonian unveiled an exhibit Monday to honor Jackie Robinson's integration of professional baseball, 50 years ago this week.
The event brought tears to the eyes of Ernest Burke, an infielder with the Baltimore Elite Giants from 1946-48, when he recalled how Robinson was treated by fans when visiting Baltimore as a player.
"The way they called him" names, Burke said, dabbing his eyes with a napkin. "Anywhere else, I almost could understand, but to do that to him in my hometown."
The poignant recollection provided the only sobering message at the event that brought together five Negro League players to remember Robinson, who died in October 1972, as the museum unwrapped the new display featuring memorabilia from his playing days.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History exhibit, "Jackie Robinson and the Integration of Major League Baseball" displays items such as Robinson-autographed baseballs, baseball cards and a life-size cardboard cutout of Robinson in uniform.
Visitors can also see a program from the 1952 World Series between Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees, a Robinson-autographed baseball bat and pictures of Robinson tracing his history from when he was a UCLA track star to being a U.S. serviceman to his days on the baseball diamond.
Burke, a tennis instructor living in Baltimore, said pleasant memories far outnumber the sad ones when recalling Robinson. Burke said when he heard Robinson had been selected to integrate baseball, he knew "they had the right man."
"We were overwhelmed," Burke said. "He had the education and the talent. We felt so good. It's like we were floating on air," Burke said with arms outstretched.
Though the unveiling had been planned for months, the timing couldn't have been better in light of Tiger Woods' victory in the Masters on Sunday, several speakers said.
Woods, 21, whose father is black and mother is Thai, became the first person of color to win a major golf tournament as well as the youngest Masters champion.
"I couldn't help but think to myself that I was watching another Jackie when I was watching golf yesterday," said Tom Johnson, who pitched for the Philadelphia Stars in 1940. "It was absolutely fabulous and showed that black people moving forward is a continuing process. It goes step by step, and Tiger is the latest big step we've taken."
The first big step, however, came on April 15, 1947, when Robinson took the field in Brooklyn's Ebbets Field and smashed the whites-only ban that had ruled baseball for generations.
Robinson's integration of America's pastime changed America and preceded the integration of the military by one year and the integration of public schools by seven years.
"Few stories are as inspiring as the life of Jackie Robinson," said Spencer Crew, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Nearly all of the items were collected over the years in the museum's American Sports, Leisure and Recreation Collection, which is home to more than 100,000 artifacts.
The only loaned item was a Robinson baseball jersey emblazoned with the familiar script "Dodger" in blue with Robinson's number 42. Museum officials said they hoped the jersey would be donated permanently to the showcase, which is on display indefinitely.
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Jackie Robinson Salute
Dodgers vs. New York Mets
Game Time: 4:35 pm.
Highlights: The game, which will be stopped for at least 30 minutes after the Dodges bat in the top of the fifth inning, will be highlighted by President Bill Clinton's speech. The Mets also plan to name an avenue near Shea Stadium in Robinson's honor.