Remembering Jackie before he was 42
Robinson began baseball career as No. 5 with Monarchs
As Major League Baseball prepares for its annual remembrance of Jackie Robinson -- this time with all on-field personnel wearing his iconic No. 42 -- it's worth remembering that Robinson's baseball life didn't begin in the Majors or with that number.Remembering -- and celebrating and educating -- is exactly what the Negro Leagues Museum is doing with a weeklong program of events under the banner "Before he was #42."
The Museum is based in Kansas City, in the flickering shadows of the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, with whom Robinson broke into pro ball in 1945, two years before he would cross MLB's color line.He wore No. 5 as the second baseman on a team brimming with stars who would closely follow him into the Majors, integrating teams from the East Coast to the Midwest. It is a part of the Robinson legacy relatively ignored, the reason the museum felt it was the right time to highlight it. "Time and again, I would run into people here in Kansas City whose eyes would bug out when finding out Robinson had played here. They had no idea," said Bob Kendrick, a vice president with the museum. "Each year we've tried to bring out Robinson's Kansas City roots in small ways, but that was a motivation for a larger awareness campaign. "Right now, and until we can rewrite the books, people are only getting one side of the story, from the day Robinson walked out on the field as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. We need the entire story to be told. If we don't do it, who will?" The agenda features enhanced Robinson exhibits and a series of informative youth-oriented events. For instance, the program included Tuesday morning's "Stories of the Negro Leagues," jazz interpretations of the Negro Leagues experience for 150 local elementary school students. "We're reaching out to younger students," Kendrick said, "because [Robinson's big league impact] is an event they will learn about and study, but only from one perspective. "This is a part of Robinson's life you can't leave out. There's an impression that Robinson kind of came out of nowhere and just started playing ball." Indeed, Robinson, a four-sport splendor at UCLA during a collegiate career that ended in 1941, started in Kansas City following a World War II Army hitch. "This is where he learned a brand of baseball he took with him to the Major Leagues. It is important that youngsters all over the country understand that the Negro Leagues gave America one of its greatest heroes," Kendrick said, referring to Robinson -- but the Monarchs' influence hardly stopped with him. "Making sure people are aware of where his career began again validates how important these [Negro] leagues were, and the impact they had on the social advances of the game and of the country." The museum's updated Robinson exhibit features recently acquired artifacts, photos and vintage magazines which, according to Kendrick, "help people gain a greater perspective of his courage." Kendrick is pleased with the reaction to the museum's initiative, hoping that it helps plans to make the Robinson-Kansas City connection a citywide celebration next year. "The response has been tremendous," he said. "There never was a time when people didn't want to know about the Negro Leagues, but [they] didn't know where to look. It's a new interpretation of a story a lot of people have covered time and again."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.