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Jackie Robinson's legacy to America

Baseball legend's daughter tells the off-the-field story of her father's hard-won victories and the effect he had on his family, his community and his country.
/ Source: TODAY

Fifty-seven years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and became the first African-American to play for the major leagues. To his fans, he's was a hero and American icon. To his daughter, he was a loving father who inspired others to succeed. In honor of his 85th birthday, Sharon Robinson has written a new biography called "Promises to Keep: how Jackie Robinson changed America." Here’s an excerpt:

On April 12, 1947, my father Jack Roosevelt Robinson, stepped out of the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout, crossed first base, and assumed his position as first baseman.  He paused, hands resting on bent knees, toes pointed in, then stood, lifted his cap, and saluted the cheering fans.  It was a defining moment for baseball — and for America.

As a result of Dad’s accomplishments on and off the field, I inherited a legacy of excellence and service.  Today this legacy, takes me into classrooms across the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.  As the Vice President of Educational Programming for Major League Baseball, I bring the Breaking Barriers program into schools, where children, players, and I talk baseball, values, and books.  The kids are naturally curious about my childhood.  They want to know what was it like being Jackie Robinson’s daughter.

They ask questions such as, “Did your dad come home angry after losing a game?” or, “How did you and your family feel about the hate letters you got?”  But the question that makes me stop and think hardest has been, “Did you really know your father?”

When kids ask me that question, I tell them I was six when my dad retired from baseball; twelve when he was elected into the Hall Fame; twenty-two when he died.  I also tell the children that my father taught me to flip pancakes, hit a baseball, question political leaders, solve problems, and keep promises.

Whether I was learning to walk, wildly swinging the bat at a fastball, tackling one of my brothers during a football game, or singing a show tune from West Side Story on the rock ledge of our fireplace, Dad encouraged me with his praise and loving smile.  At times, my father made me feel like I was the most important person in his life.  He was fond of saying, “Just put your fingertip in my tea and I won’t need any sugar.” I’d giggle and believe I actually had the power to sweeten that cup!  When I was sad, Dad was there for me.  The first time I cried over failed love, he sat on my bed and reminded me that I deserved better.

Over the years, I’ve learned about my father’s baseball days from friends, family, other ballplayers, and even strangers who are anxious to share cherished Jackie Robinson memories with me.  To this day, I’m mesmerized by newsreels of my dad rounding the bases, joyously clapping his hands as he outfoxes another pitcher.

My father was famous.  My bothers and I grew up among awards, trophies, and photographs, but our parents taught us not to worship these honors.  They said we should measure our lives by the impact we had on other people’s lives.  All we had to do was pay attention to the way our parents lived to know that this was true.

As a kid, my favorite photograph hung on the wall leading to the lower level of our house.  It showed my dad stealing home plate during the 1955 World Series. I passed it several times a day and always paused to look at how a cloud of dirt obscured half my dad’s body, or to study the way his right hand was clenched into a fist.  I never failed to notice how my dad’s face was twisted with fierce determination.  Could this be the same man who never raised his voice at home?

Looking back I realize that one of the things I admired most about my father was how he stayed in the game until the end.  He stood firm even when his opinion wasn’t popular.  Whether questioning an umpire or an American president, Dad used his celebrity to challenge an unjust system and support a movement organized to correct the wrongs.

So, yes, I knew my dad well as a father and a man.

This brings me to why I wrote Promises to Keep. Though my father’s story has been told many times, I wanted the opportunity to tell it in its fullness.  Promises to Keep is more than a photographic biography.  It’s a story about commitment. I’ve chronicled my father’s life through words and pictures as a lasting memory to a man who was shaped by American history and who had an impact on American history.  As you read Promises to Keep, you’ll see that my father’s personal and professional experiences, like baseball itself, reflected the American experience of his time.

A lifetime of service was my father’s commitment to America and his challenge to you.  Whether you commit to study hard, to be a better friend, family member, or neighbor, I hope that through my father’s example you will understand why making a promise and keeping it is so important.

Excerpted from “Promises To Keep: How Jackie Robinson Changed America” by Sharon Robinson. Copyright © 2004 by Sharon Robinson. Published by Scholastic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.