Learning Something New Every Day

By Jeff Schultz
Updated: May 16, 2009

GRIFFIN, Ga. — An eighth-grader stood in a school gymnasium Friday, accepting her award for an essay she wrote about what it took to overcome illness and family issues that would have crippled most.

Beside her and presenting the award was the daughter of Jackie Robinson, whose physical gifts were surpassed only by the courage and character it took to endure racial prejudices, shatter baseball’s color barrier and become one of the most revered figures in sports.

Today, baseball, the sport Robinson once graced, is tainted by too many athletes who can’t even overcome their own egos. It’s more important to the weak-minded likes of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and now Manny Ramirez, to satisfy their own statistical and economic urges than to do things the right way with integrity.

Like Robinson.

Like even Meagan Williams of Kennedy Road Middle School in Griffin.

“I’m sure my father would be very disappointed in the direction things have taken, not just in baseball, but in all of professional athletics,” Sharon Robinson said Friday.

“He was a four-sport letterman at UCLA. He managed to go from a track meet to a baseball game in the same season and have to perform in both places — and he never would have thought about using any kind of artificial enhancement in order to make that happen.

“We live in a culture that has to change. We have to deal with it. Whether it’s social drugs or performance-enhancing drugs, you can’t deny it. You have to deal with it head on it and move on.”

Jackie Robinson retired from baseball after the 1956 season. Sharon was six-years old. She has few memories of her father as an athlete. She remembers going to spring training. She remembers going to a game, “but I can’t really remember anything about it.”

But there was the trophy case in the house and the framed picture of Jackie stealing home at the top of the staircase. And there always were fans asking for autographs.

Jackie Robinson was quiet. He seldom spoke to his children about the racism he faced daily, even as a baseball star. She only came to learn some details when she was nine-years-old and attended a day camp.

“It rained one day,” she said, “so they showed a movie: The Jackie Robinson story.”

In 1997, baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Robinson being the first in baseball’s modern era to break the color barrier. Sharon Robinson had been a midwife and educator for 20 years.

But the anniversary was her entry into baseball. She threw out first pitches at games. She eventually went to work for Major League Baseball, in charge of educational programming, and started, “Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life.”

The curriculum is based on her father’s nine values for success: determination, commitment, persistence, integrity, justice, courage, teamwork, citizenship and excellence.

Williams, one of the winners in this year’s essay contest, wrote of her battles with Kawasaki disease as a youth and a broken home life. The essay was not made public. But Robinson said she referenced several problems involving her parents and “talked of needing courage just to come home.”

Baseball is trying to fix its problems. After years of seeing the number of African Americans in the sport decline, it’s finally on the up tick (it rose from 8.2 percent in 2007 to 10.2 percent last season).

And what of drug use? Robinson believes commissioner Bud Selig is determined to clean up the sport.

When asked if she thought baseball once turned a blind eye to steroid use, she smiled and said: “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say that. So let’s just move on.”

Baseball is trying to move on. But it could use more reminders of the past.