In the 1950s, Jackie Robinson befriends a Jewish child in Wisconsin, sings for him on his 10th birthday and congratulates him on his bar mitzvah.
On Friday, when baseball marks the 75th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier, Ron Rabinovitz will remember his childhood hero – as a civil rights icon but also as a friend.
“We were so different,” Rabinovitz said. “I was white. He was black. I was Jewish. He was a Christian. I was a child. He was an adult. I was from a small town in the Midwest. He came from a big city in the East. And yet, there was this bond of friendship and love.
The story of Rabinovitz’s relationship with Robinson is a small chapter in the baseball legend’s life. But it is also a testament to the soft side and loyalty of the strong man. Robinson didn’t just write a few letters to young Rabinovitz. It followed him long after his days on the diamond. And he taught her, up close, how friendship can transcend differences.
“Some people say Babe Ruth changed baseball – Jackie Robinson changed America,” Rabinovitz, now 76, said in a recent interview.
A letter from Jackie
Ron’s father, David Rabinovitz, an active civil rights lawyer and Democratic National Committee member from Wisconsin, began the family’s relationship with Robinson with a fan letter. He wrote, in a 1953 note, how much his seven-year-old son admired him.
“One day I came home from school and there was an envelope face down on my bed – the back said ‘Jackie Robinson,'” Ron Rabinovitz said in a recent interview, his voice still filled with excitement near seven decades later. “In the envelope was an autographed photo and letter. He said the next time the Dodgers are in Milwaukee, he’d like to meet me.
The Rabinovitz family lived in Sheboygan, about 60 miles north of Milwaukee, which had just landed a major league team that season when the Braves moved there from Boston. So Ron and his dad went to the stadium to watch the Dodgers take on the Braves.
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After the match, Rabinowitz waited for Robinson outside the locker room. “And when he walked through the door, I ran up to him, along with about 50 other kids waiting for autographs,” Rabinovitz recalled. “I said, ‘Jackie, I’m Ronnie Rabinovitz, do you remember me?’ He says: ‘Of course it is!’ Robinson urged the boy to stay in touch.
When he got home, young Ronnie wrote a letter simply addressed to “Jackie Robinson, Stamford, CT” – no address, no zip code. “I said ‘It was a pleasure meeting you, I appreciate your kindness and I would love to hear from you,'” Rabinovitz said. ” He answered me. We were like correspondents. I got 20 letters from him when I was a kid. When the Dodgers came to town, Robinson would often have lunch or dinner with the family.
Confide in a child
Two years later, in September 1955, Robinson homered at Milwaukee and waved Rabinovitz as he rounded the bases. That night, he got in a car with the family and drove to a restaurant in downtown Milwaukee for Ron’s 10th birthday party. The following month, the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in the World Series – the team’s only championship in Brooklyn.
“Having Jackie Robinson sing ‘Happy Birthday’ was probably the best birthday I’ve ever had,” Rabinovitz said. He recalled that Robinson and his father had talked politics that night. David Rabinovitz was friends with the senator at the time. John F. Kennedy – Ron Rabinovitz said his father was the first person in Wisconsin to endorse his 1960 presidential run – but Robinson would side with Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
In 1956, Ron Rabinovitz watched Robinson, then 37, play an outside line practice badly at Milwaukee, and the ball rolled to the fence.
“That night we had dinner together and I said, ‘Jackie, that was a tough play,'” Rabinovitz said. Robinson replied that a rookie outfielder named Sandy Amoros would have made the play, then confided “I’m going to tell you a secret that no one else knows but my own family – I think this will be my last year in baseball. And Robinson ended up retiring after the season.
But he and Rabinovitz stayed in touch.
“Ronnie, one of the things that pleases me the most is that our friendship continues even though I am no longer connected with baseball,” Robinson wrote to Ron in a letter congratulating him on his bar mitzvah. “It’s friends like you who make me feel like everything that happened was worth it.”
Robinson dedicated his post-baseball life to civil rights – writing columns and speaking out across the country, including during the 1963 March on Washington. He continues to make trips to Wisconsin, for sports banquets or in connection with the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
Around 1960 or 1961, when Rabinovitz was a teenager, Robinson came for a visit and spent the night with the Rabinovitz family.
“I had a take with my dad on the lawn, and a neighbor pulled over,” Rabinovitz recalled. “And my father tells him that Jackie Robinson is going to stay with us. And the neighbor said, “You mean you’d let Jackie Robinson sleep over at your place?”
“My dad said, ‘Of course I would. I would like him to build a house next to me. My neighbor said, “Boy, I sure wouldn’t.” My dad looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Well, I don’t think that would be the real question. The real question would be whether Jackie Robinson would want to live next door to you.
Things got worse after the family dropped Robinson off at the airport. When they went to David Rabinovitz’s law office, they saw that someone had spray-painted a sign that read, “Rabinovitz bring (n-words) to Sheboygan.”
“I was crying. My dad took a bucket and brushes and wiped it all up. I couldn’t believe someone would be so terrible.
Defend the Jews
Robinson had a proven track record in combating prejudice against Jewish people. In 1962, for example, he wrote a column condemning anti-Semitism following a demonstration by black nationalists against the owner of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, Frank Schiffman. Angered by his plan to open a restaurant that would offer lower prices than a black-owned restaurant, they had signs and posters that mocked Schiffman as “Shylock.”
“I disliked bigotry in any form, and I couldn’t understand why no one came to Schiffman’s aid,” Robinson wrote in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made. “I was ashamed to see community leaders who should have known better being afraid to speak out when black people were guilty of blatant anti-Semitism – even if they were just a handful of black people. How could we challenge anti-black bias if we were willing to practice or tolerate similar intolerance? »
Jackie Robinson befriended a young Jewish boy
Rabinovitz’s relationship with Robinson continued into adulthood.
He worked as a representative for a manufacturer of children’s clothing, and when business took him to New York, he met with Robinson. About six months before Robinson’s death in October 1972, they had lunch in town, and Rabinovitz had to help his hero into the restaurant – the former athlete suffered from diabetes and was partially blind.
“I felt so sad because I remembered him dancing on the baseline, driving those pitchers crazy,” Rabinovitz said. “After lunch I called him a taxi, leaned over and kissed him on the cheek and told him how much I loved him. And as that taxi vanished into space, I had tears rolling down my cheeks, because I knew I would probably never see him again.
But Robinson, who died in 1972, is still a part of Rabinovitz’s life. He co-wrote a book called Always, Jackie, which Amazon named one of the best nonfiction children’s books for January 2020. The title is a nod to how Robinson would sign his letters to the boy. Their relationship was also the subject of an MLB Network documentary titled “Letters from Jackie.” And Rabinovitz, who lives in Minneapolis, tells kids at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, about his relationship with Robinson.
The 75th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut will coincide with the first night of Passover, which Rabinovitz called “wonderful.”
“He would have loved that. He loved the Jewish heritage.