Early this year in its airy, wood-floored main space in downtown Manhattan, the Jackie Robinson Foundation held a fund-raising event commemorating what would have been the Hall of Famer's 93rd birthday. The evening also honored former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who posthumously received the foundation's annual Chairman Award for having "carried on the tradition of Jackie Robinson." Although the Yankees were no friend to Robinson during his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers—the Yanks heckled him profoundly while beating Brooklyn in five of six World Series—Steinbrenner had, over a 37-year ownership reign, which began in 1973, been generous in charity and loyal to baseball people in need. The former Yankee Darryl Strawberry, an African-American slugger whose career was derailed by drug use, was on hand to express gratitude to the Boss for "sticking by me and pulling me up when no one else would."
Several ex-players attended the event, including Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan, as well as foundation chair and former National League president Len Coleman. But the light in the room came from somewhere else: a woman in a black pantsuit, with shoulder-length gray hair and dangling earrings. She mingled unhurriedly, occasionally dispensing hugs to those she knew. Other guests kept looking toward her, angling to get close, to eavesdrop on her banter, to shake her hand, to take in her glow. She needed no name tag. This was Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. To observe her for any length of time and then to learn that she will soon turn 90 is akin to learning that yes, in fact, cows can fly. She looks 68.
About an hour into the evening, Morgan took to a lectern to emcee a short program. He noted that it has been 65 years since Jackie Robinson crossed the major league color line—on April 15, Major League Baseball will celebrate the anniversary of his first game with the Dodgers—and 50 years since Robinson was inducted into the Hall. Strawberry took a turn at the mike, as did Coleman and David Robinson, one of Jackie and Rachel's three children. Then Morgan stepped to the lectern again. "Now," he said, "I have to formally introduce someone who is here tonight. You know that England has its queen, well ... we have ours. The queen mother— Rachel Robinson."
SHE HAS been without Jackie for nearly 40 years, eight years longer than she knew him. In that time she has at once embraced the role of a great man's widow, protected and carried on his legacy, and built her own identity, leading a pointed second life centered on her work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Her stature in and outside of baseball—last month Rachel was invited to the White House by a fifth president, for a small, private gathering with Barack Obama—stems from the significance of her achievements and from a fine blend of diplomacy and moral conviction. They're the same traits that defined her when she was standing close by Jackie, inspiring and often guiding him over their 32 years of courtship and marriage.
It was Rachel who, upon landing in New Orleans in 1946 en route to Jackie's first spring training—at age 23 and on her first trip to the Jim Crow South after growing up outside Los Angeles—went straight to an airport water fountain marked WHITES ONLY and took a drink. Then she walked into the WHITES ONLY ladies' room. That year a reporter, profiling the Robinsons as Jackie played for the otherwise all-white Montreal Royals, a Dodgers minor league affiliate, compared Rachel with Eleanor Roosevelt. Friends tell the story of how, in the early 1970s, when Rachel was working as a psychiatric nurse and teaching at Yale, the university tried to recruit her to join its board. Rachel declined. "Not unless you hire another black or another woman," she said. "You won't get a twofer from me."
Rachel established the Jackie Robinson Foundation in 1973, less than a year after her husband died, at 53, of a heart attack. His death came 16 months after Jackie Jr., only 24 and the eldest of the Robinsons' children, was killed in a one-car crash. "My life, our family's life was plunged into grief," Rachel said from her corner office in New York City last month. "The foundation grew out of my mourning and my wish to hold on to [Jackie's] legacy, to continue our journey."
She laid the groundwork at the kitchen table of her home in Stamford, Conn., on the sprawling property where she and Jackie moved the family in 1954. Along with Rachel, the kitchen group that met in '73 included civil rights lawyer Franklin Williams, businessman Warren Jackson and Marty Edelman, who had been Jackie's attorney. "The goal was to do something beyond a one-time event or monument," says Edelman, who remains on the foundation's board. "It needed to be something that could sustain itself and have a lasting impact."
Rachel, who graduated cum laude from UCLA with a degree in nursing, steered the mission to education. The group decided to establish a scholarship program that would not only give money for minority students to attend college but also maintain a hands-on mentoring and leadership training program to help students through school once they got there. "The foundation today," Edelman says, "is an outgrowth of the things we—and by we I really mean Rachel—were saying at that kitchen table."
The Jackie Robinson Foundation awarded its first scholarship to Stamford high school student Debora Young. "Rachel was right on top of me, being there to help, but getting tough to make sure I did what I had to do," says Young, who went to Boston College and then into a career in corporate public relations. "Over the years we started calling her Mother Rachel."
Four decades later the foundation has provided for more than 1,400 students, including the 220 Jackie Robinson scholars currently in school. Each receives $7,500 per year in aid, as well as the mentoring. The foundation gets upwards of 3,500 applications a year and accepts between 50 and 70. Those selected are minority students, many from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds and many the first in their family to attend college. This year's seniors include a panorama of majors: neurobiology at Harvard, film at Occidental, nuclear engineering at Texas A&M, economics at Yale. Close to 100 companies provide sponsorship, among them Major League Baseball and several individual teams. The most astonishing number is this: The foundation reports a graduation rate of more than 97%.