On March 2nd, 2005, in the Great Rotunda of the Capitol of the United States, President George W. Bush presented to Rachel Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal, given posthumously in honor of her late husband, Jackie Robinson. Ms. Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, and her son, David, were present at the special ceremony, as were Congressional leaders and more than 500 people.The Congressional Gold Medal given Mr. Robinson took place 58 years after he became the first black player in major league baseball. It is worthy of note that the first recipient of the Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, was first presented to George Washington.
The story of how Jackie Robinson was finally awarded the honor he had long deserved began January 31, 2003, at the first Red Sox birthday tribute to his remarkable life. On That occasion at Fenway Park, team President & CEO Larry Lucchino announced that the following day Senators John Kerry and John McCain, joined by Congressmen Richard Neal and Peter King, would introduce legislation to obtain for Jackie Robinson the Congressional Gold Medal.
That effort, culminating more than two years later in the presentation of the Gold Medal by the President, represents one of the most extraordary efforts ever by a professional sports team to rectify what had been a significant oversight by the nation’s political and civilian leadership.
The idea of a Gold Medal for Jackie Robinson began with George Mitrovich, now chairman of The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, and Melody Miller, a key aide to Senator Ted Kennedy. But an idea, however worthy, is just that, until it receives the support it requires. The Red Sox organization, Senators Kerry and McCain, Congressmen Neal and King, and two key Congressional aides, Katie Joyce of Senator Kerry’s staff, and Billy Tranghese of Congressman Neal’s staff, provided that critical support.
Since the first birthday tribute to Mr. Robinson, conceived by Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox’s Vice President for Public Affairs, there have been three subsequent tributes – two more at Fenway and this year at the John F. Kennedy Library (as Fenway was undergoing renovations). At each of the four tributes Boston school children have been invited to be the guests of the Red Sox in order that they might learn the life story of a man who helped change American society – and change it for the better.
The children have heard from those who both knew Jackie Robinson and those who have written books about his inspiring life. Mr. Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, spoke at the first birthday ceremony, as did Buck O’Neil, Chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer” and a friend of Jackie’s, spoke as well. In subsequent years NPR’s Scott Simon and Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams, both highly accomplished and authors of books about Jackie’s life, also spoke and made memorable a story too many of today’s youth most likely have missed. At each birthday celebration the children received gifts from the Red Sox, including autographed copies of the authors’ books. Those four occasions will live long in the memories of the Boston school children.
The Red Sox’s birthday tributes to Jackie Robinson will continue.