MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
We all know about the baseball legend Jackie Robinson's story, but he did not march into history by himself. His wife, Rachel Robinson was often by his side as he broke the color barrier in major league baseball.
She too, felt the weight of history, the taunts, the death threats, the constant scrutiny, though we know far less about she bore that burden. Rachel Robinson was in Washington, D.C. this week to receive honors at a congressional baseball game and to promote her work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
She also stopped by our studios. At 87 she is still active and quite elegant, and willing to look back with laughter at some of the painful chapters of her life. For instance, those first days in 1946 when she and her husband as newlyweds traveled to spring training camp for the newly integrated Brooklyn Dodgers farm team.
RACHEL ROBINSON: We went on our first trip to spring training in Daytona Beach, Florida. We were bumped from two planes and white passengers were put on those planes. We had to stay overnight in one city before we could catch a bus the rest of the trip to Daytona Beach. We came from California and I knew what discrimination was, but it wasn't a legislated thing like it was in the South.
When I got to Jacksonville I just walked into the white ladies restroom just to recover some of my dignity and my sense of myself, because I was horrified by it.
NORRIS: Do you remember the moment that you realized, we are in a completely different place, when you realized that the South was so much different than Southern California?
ROBINSON: Oh, right. We realized it as soon as we hit that Florida area. When we got on the bus in Jacksonville we just sat where there were empty seats, but the bus driver stopped the bus and told us to move to the back bench. And when we moved to the back bench, the back bench was filled. And what the black people had done to accommodate new people on the bus, is to sit up and sit back, you know, so everybody is on a little bit of the bench. So it was flagrant and it was right there in front of us. There was no way of missing it, and we knew that we were up against something very new.
NORRIS: I had read that on one of the trips, and perhaps it was this one, that Jackie Robinson's mother, Mallie Robinson, had tried to send you off with a box of something to eat...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Was it a box of chicken?
ROBINSON: Fried chicken.
ROBINSON: Mallie sent us off - it was our honeymoon trip really, and Mallie gave us in California, she gave us a box of fried chicken. And we were both, you know, looking at each other with cross eyes, like what would we do this fried chicken on the plane? Well, actually, that fried chicken came in very handy, because then once we found out we couldn't go into the dining rooms we decided that we would not eat until we got to our location. But the fried chicken was, you know, was a gift.
NORRIS: And she probably knew that.
ROBINSON: And Mallie knew that.
NORRIS: What was it like when you actually started the spring training program? Were the players initially supportive and did they go out of their way to at least to try to make a way for you?
ROBINSON: No. There was no grand welcome, and it was a gradual thing when they could see that Jack was going to be the kind of teammate that would help them win games, they came around.
NORRIS: I'm so happy that I've had a chance to talk to you, because over time I have read about and I've listened to the footage of those early games, where people were saying just awful things, and in some cases hurling things down on the field. And my mind always went to Jackie Robinson's family. I always wondered, where exactly were you when this was going on, and what was it that you were able to hear and feel?
ROBINSON: In Brooklyn we didn't have troubles we had on the road, but I can tell you I went to Baltimore with Jack once and the name-calling, the trouble started in the dug out with the players and their coach and their managers yelling at us and saying things. And I just sat there kind of stunned that this could happen. My only thought was to protect Jack. I mean, the whole protective thing that women feel and I felt intensely with him.
So all I could do was sit up taller, as if my back - you know, it's a fantasy, that my back could block some of that stuff that was coming at him out of the stands. And then to know that we were, that he was going to play so well that they weren't going to be able to keep it up.
NORRIS: So you protected him by basically being stoic.
ROBINSON: By being stoic and being there.
NORRIS: Did you sit with the other wives?
ROBINSON: I did.
NORRIS: And what was that like?
ROBINSON: Well, it was a gradual process. They didn't necessarily welcome me into their group, and I didn't necessarily try to make friends with them. We were just seated together.
ROBINSON: But gradually we would talk, I would talk to one or two or they would come over and speak to me or when the team is winning the wives are all excited and it makes it easier to be able to befriend each one.
NORRIS: Have you ever encountered some of the people who resisted his entry into the major leagues? And when you did, what did they have to say and how did you react in that moment?
ROBINSON: I can think of one particular person, and I'd rather not use his name, but he is a former ball player during that period and he was virulent, you know, he was just terrible, outspoken against Jack. He approached me a couple of years ago and told me that he regretted the role he took, he didn't understand the process and he had a lot of remorse about it and he asked me to come and visit him in his town and in his organization. And I went, and it wasn't for me to forgive him, if you will, it was for me to understand what he was living through during that period. And I was just happy that he'd found, you know, the truth.
NORRIS: You know, when you look at, if you watch a baseball game, and you look into the stands, if you look at what's going on in little leagues all across the country there aren't as many young black boys that gravitate towards baseball, that get as excited about baseball as they used to. Does that bother you?
ROBINSON: I'm concerned about it. I'm concerned about diversity in baseball. I want to see more African-Americans involved, I want to see them in positions, like managerial positions. So it's been slow to happen, and in fact there's been some decline in the number of African-American players in the game. Major League Baseball has to really have the desire to make this happen. We'll see.
NORRIS: Do you still follow baseball closely?
ROBINSON: Yes I do. I'm a Dodger and a Met fan.
NORRIS: I was about to ask, who do you root for these days?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROBINSON: Well, it's been hard to put the two together and I hope they never play each other, they won't.
NORRIS: Do you watch it on TV or do you listen on the radio?
ROBINSON: No, I watch it on TV.
NORRIS: All right, we'll forgive you for that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: Rachel Robinson, it has been a pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much for coming in.
ROBINSON: Thank you Michele, it's been my pleasure being with you.
NORRIS: That was Rachel Robinson, widow of major league baseball pioneer the late Jackie Robinson, and founder of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.