Los Angeles Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts has been part of several “firsts” in his professional life. Such as being the first man of color named as the manager of the iconic franchise in 2016. And, as the son of an African American father and a Japanese mother, being the first major league manager of Asian heritage to take a team to the World Series, which Roberts did in 2017.
When the Dodgers won the 2020 World Series, it made Roberts the second manager of African heritage to win the championship after Cito Gaston, who led Toronto to back-to-back titles in 1992 and 1993.
Roberts, 49, would be the first to tell you that none of it would have been possible without the courage and talent of Jackie Robinson to break the modern day Major League Baseball “color line” barring Black players by playing for the Dodgers in 1947.
April 15, this year, will mark the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s first regular season game. While his Hall of Fame career and life have been widely portrayed in books and movies, Roberts believes Robinson’s legacy as a baseball player, and later on as a civil rights activist, must be retold and discussed, and not just only during Black History Month.
Roberts was doing exactly that on Monday, Jan. 31, at Dodger Stadium with 60 students from Pasadena’s John Muir High School — the same high school Robinson graduated from after he and his family relocated to California from Georgia, where he was born.
If Robinson (who died in 1972 from diabetes) were alive he would have celebrated his 103rd birthday on Monday.
“You guys know the name ‘Jackie Robinson’ and how he impacted you guys even today. But [now you] to hear it from me and from his son David…[it’s] going to allow you guys to tell the story yourselves. That’s what creates a legacy and, ultimately, history,” said Roberts, chatting with the students around a statue of Robinson that was first unveiled behind the centerfield seats five years ago.
So it is important to celebrate Robinson’s achievements, not just this anniversary year but every year, Roberts indicated.
“This is gonna be the 75th year that Jackie Robinson put on this Dodgers uniform,” he said. “He was a Hall of Fame baseball player. He won the World Series. He was a [league] MVP….And Jackie was unique in a way that — not only for the color of his skin — but knowing what he had to endure off the field and in the clubhouse to still perform at a high level.
“It’s not just about the color of our skin; it’s also equality for everybody….It’s the challenge that Jackie took upon himself that he was so much more than (a baseball player). [Sports] will come and go for all of us. But your legacy and how you impact everyone around you, that’s something that can and should last forever.”
David Robinson, 69, who joined the conversation via Zoom, is one of three children born to Jackie and Rachel Robinson and their second son. (He has an older sister, Sharon, 72, an author. Firstborn son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., died in 1971 in a car accident at the age of 24.)
David described his late father — who attended UCLA, was an Army officer during WWII, was the first black television analyst in MLB, and the first black vice-president of a major American corporation after his playing career ended and was very active in the Civil Rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1950s and 1960s — as “a basic man,” a man who “saw a need — saw it in his own life — and wanted to fulfill it,” so he committed his life to that quest.
“It has been questioned: what was the motivation of Jackie Robinson to do all that he did in Civil Rights?” David said. “Look back at his life. He sat in a room with his grandmother — who was born a slave — and his mother, who was born a sharecropper. And he was able to see the suffering in the past, and the potential suffering in the future.”
“Even when he left baseball, the issues of race and human development were there. He was a man who responded to those things because he was a man who saw himself as not just as part of life — but someone who could [make an] impact on life.”
He added that even though his dad “grew up without a relationship with his own father,” Jackie Robinson was a doting parent. “He made sure he was a father in the house who spent time with his children, and showed his love every opportunity he got,” David said.
One of his fondest memories growing up, David said, was of his father hitting golf balls over the family house in Connecticut with him on the other side of the house, with a baseball glove, “catching the golfballs, collecting them, and bringing them back to him.”
While David didn’t play professional sports, he took his father’s beliefs to have a positive impact on others’ lives to heart.
In the 1970s, as a founder and president of United Harlem Growth, Inc., he spent nine years in community development and self-help housing construction in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. Since 1983, David has lived in Tanzania, East Africa, where he has been involved in international economic development as the Managing Director of the Higher Ground Development Corporation, a coffee farm, coffee exporter and marketer of the Sweet Unity Farms coffee brand in North America.
And he has worked for and with the Jackie Robinson Foundation since its inception in 1973, the year following his father’s death.
In reminiscing about the day the statue of Jackie Robinson was unveiled, David told the Muir High students he’s pretty sure his father would have offered some poignant reaction to the celebration.
“I know my father would have commented that even in that moment of glory and momentous feeling, one had to remember the centuries, the decades, the thousands of years that led up to that one moment. And that the glitter and glamour of that moment should never blind us from the realities of how we got to that moment, the suffering and sacrifice and the work carried on to get us to that one moment. And what still has to come in the years, decades and generations in the future,” he said.
“You students are the inheritors of that challenge, And you should also not be blinded by any glorious moments or any glitter that comes your way in whatever form….Understand the history, the moment. And when you understand that history, yes you will celebrate and be proud. But you will also pause and look ahead, and ask how much work do we have to go. You’re high school students but I think you know that answer now. We have a long way to go in human development in order to reach a place where all human beings are exercising their potential in freedom, and with dignity.”