The students in Rachel Goldstein’s fifth-grade class at Freetown Elementary School in Glen Burnie, Md., quieted down as the middle-aged woman began to speak. At her side sat Jerry Hairston Jr., the Orioles’ second baseman, but all attention was focused on his companion. Like her late father, Sharon Robinson has a commanding presence.
“We are going to talk about barriers today,” Robinson said. The subject was entirely appropriate because on a chilly April day in Brooklyn 54 years ago her dad shattered one of the most enduring and least endearing barriers of sports and society.
Of course, he was Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play major league baseball in 63 years and one good enough to make the Hall of Fame on his skills alone even though his career with the Brooklyn Dodgers lasted just 10 seasons. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of his monumental debut, baseball ruled that his No. 42 forevermore would be off limits to new players. His only daughter is honoring his memory in a more substantive way through education.
“He believed that’s how people get beyond prejudice,” she said yesterday after an hour-long session with the Glen Burnie schoolchildren. And if we choose to regard Jackie Robinson’s pioneering role in baseball as one of education as well as muscle, then it’s possible to draw a direct timeline from his efforts to hers a half-century later.
Sharon Robinson, 51, is on a 17-city tour of major league venues with the 2001 version of her Breaking Barriers In Sports, In Life program that she suggested to Major League Baseball in 1997. The normally shortsighted gnomes who run the sport liked the idea so much that they named her their director of education.
Stated simply as possible, Breaking Barriers is designed to teach children aged 9 to 14 the values and traits they need to deal with challenges in their lives. The Glen Burnie kids first were asked if they knew what physical and psychological barriers are, then to give examples of ones they had confronted. The response was enthusiastic.
Children also are asked to write essays about barriers. First-place winners from each city receive tickets for their classmates, family and teacher to a major league game. (You were expecting maybe ballet?) So far more than a million students have participated in the program, and more than 6,000 have written essays.
Robinson, a Howard University graduate, has been a nurse/ midwife and educator for 20 years. She also has written a book called “Jackie’s Nine” in which she and others discuss what she calls her father’s values to live by: courage, determination, teamwork, persistence, integrity, citizenship, justice, commitment and excellence. Students with whom she meets are invited to give examples of each.
In her remarks, she told of overcoming her own barrier during her college years being known for her own accomplishments rather than as Jackie Robinson’s daughter. As do the offspring of many famous people, she found it a steep hill to climb.
Hairston, more articulate than most athletes, told of having to overcome the death of his grandfather right after signing with the Orioles in 1997. Sam Hairston was a pioneer in his own right; in 1951, he became the first black American player with the White Sox.
“Suddenly he died, and I felt alone for the first time,” Hairston told the students. “I was very close to him, and that relationship really helped me.” Hairston dealt with the loss, he said, “by remembering what kind of person he was and what he stood for.”
Robinson has ambitious plans for the expansion of Breaking Barriers. Right now it is confined to major league and a few minor league areas, but she hopes to take it nationwide through such organizations as Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs.
“Washington? We’d love to be in Washington, perhaps by next year,” she said. Breaking Barriers should be immensely popular in D.C., where fans used to sell out Griffith Stadium every time the Jackie Robinson Dodgers played exhibition games there in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.
In any case, Robinson and Major League Baseball deserve credit for starting and pushing the program. Sports is, and always has been, a marvelous avenue to education for young people.
Another bonus is that more and more schoolchildren will learn and understand the glory that was Jackie Robinson, both on and off the ballfield. Hairston, one of nine family members to play professional baseball, put it well yesterday:
“Sharon’s father allowed white Americans to view black and minority people on a different scale,” said Hairston, who was born four years after Robinson’s death in 1972. “We owe everything to him, and I’ll never forget that. Her father was a tremendous man.”
And it could be said, like father, like daughter.