Plans are in the works to not only share memorabilia, but tell the life stories of two of the greatest players in baseball history.
The families of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente are planning museums in their honor in New York and Puerto Rico, respectively.
Robinson, Clemente and Yankee great Lou Gehrig are the subjects of new “Character and Courage” statues recently unveiled at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, where the museum news was also made public.
“We are paying tribute to the legacies of three of the greatest men baseball has ever known,” said Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. “Each man left an impact on our game and our country that goes well beyond the playing field.”
A gift of museum supporter Bob Crotty, the sculpture is a permanent addition to the Hall’s main lobby, where Robinson’s wife, Rachel; Clemente’s wife, Vera, and sons Luis and Roberto Jr.; and Curt Schilling, who has contributed greatly to the fight against Lou Gehrig’s Disease, gathered for ribbon cutting ceremonies in November.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation is embarking on a new museum that will be at 75 Varick St. in the Tribeca section of Manhattan.
“We have to raise $25 million,” Rachel Robinson said. “We have raised $12 million, and we expect to be open in 2010.”
The site will feature numerous collectibles from her husband’s career.
“I can’t even start to name them,” she said. “We’ve got great photographs, film footage. We’re going to have an interactive aspect to the museum so that children can learn something about their history and where they fit into the picture.”
Clemente’s son, Luis, is the president of Roberto Clemente Sports City in Carolina, Puerto Rico.
“We’ve got my father’s trophies, Gold Gloves, Silver Bats from his batting titles. There’s so many, many things. We kept a lot of the uniforms and articles that he used to play the game,” he said. “We’re looking into doing a museum at the Sports City. We have a master plan that will get the official Roberto Clemente Museum in place.”
Character and Courage
Robinson, Clemente and Gehrig were honored with numerous activities during a special “Character and Courage Weekend” at the Hall, including a book-signing by author Jonathan Eig, who has penned New York Times best-sellers about Gehrig and Robinson called Luckiest Man and Opening Day.
“Robinson was fighting the civil rights war before there was a civil rights war,” Eig said. “All of a sudden, there was one dark face on the ball fields of America. That was huge. That’s where it all began. Really, that first year on the team nobody wanted him, not until they saw that he could play; not until they realized they needed him.”
Likewise, Clemente endured a great deal of prejudice and injustice, as well. Arriving in America, he faced both color and language barriers and was often misunderstood. Beset by chronic physical ailments, he was sometimes looked down upon as a “complainer” whose work ethic was called into question in blue-collar Pittsburgh.
In reality, the Pirates’ right fielder was one of the hardest working athletes ever to step on a diamond. Wherever the Bucs played – Forbes Field, Three Rivers Stadium or throughout the National League – he spent countless hours studying the intricacies of every outfield fence and became a master at playing balls off the wall with amazing perfection.
“It’s hard to believe he could throw a ball that far and get it there so quickly,” Luis Clemente said. “God gave him a talent and he used it completely. He made things look easy, but he worked very hard.”
In San Juan, one of Roberto’s earliest baseball experiences was watching old Negro League stars who barnstormed through the Caribbean before Robinson broke baseball’s color line. Roberto would climb trees to watch games over the outfield fence, and his favorite player was future New York Giant Monte Irvin, who would eventually let Roberto carry his bags into the ballpark.
As fate would have it, they were both inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1973 – only months after Clemente’s tragic death in a plane crash while delivering supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972.
The proposed museums will honor Robinson and Clemente’s playing careers and what they stood for as people. The Robinson museum will also serve as a venue for vibrant dialogue on critical social issues and as a destination for learning programs. Its mission is threefold – to educate, challenge and inspire.
Luis Clemente said that Sports City has a broader purpose, too.
“The mission is not to create world-class athletes, but to make better citizens through sports,” he said. “It’s for all sports – basketball, soccer, volleyball, swimming, tennis. It’s not just for elite athletes. We want to give that opportunity to kids who are sometimes overlooked. It’s all about opportunities.”
Robinson, Clemente and Gehrig paved the way for countless others, each in their own way.
“All three men went through a lot to play the game of baseball,” Roberto Jr. said. “They left their footprints not just on the field. It was outside the lines that they showed their character and courage.”
“In all three cases, baseball was a vehicle to get a message across and inspire many millions of people,” Luis added. “Wherever my father saw injustice, he would say something. He would speak his mind. That was the message – when you see an injustice, you can do something about it.”
Crotty is a lifelong admirer of Gehrig.
“Just his entire work ethic, the way he conducted himself. He was a professional in every sense of the word,” he said. “Also, for the dignity with which he handled himself when he got word that he had contacted that disease and the image of him at the microphone, stating that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
“So I knew I wanted to do something to honor Lou and the courage that he represented. Then I started thinking, ‘Lou needs some company.’ There are many great players and many great Hall of Famers, but there are two that pretty much transcend the entire group, and I quickly arrived at Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. When you put the three together, they really do embody character and courage in every way.”
The new Cooperstown statues are the work of world-renowned sculptor Stanley Bleifeld, who previously designed Hall of Fame tributes to Women in Baseball, Satchel Paige and Roy Campanella and Johnny Podres of the 1955 Dodgers.
Crotty’s hope is that the sculptures will be the launching point for a whole series of Character and Courage-themed programs made available through the Hall of Fame’s educational outreach offerings. Plans also call for a series of paintings, posters and text promoting these values.
“It’s a life theme,” he said. “Hopefully it will mean something for all the visitors and for generations to come.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD from Glens Falls. N.Y.