Today is Jackie Robinson Day, when every major league player wears his No. 42 to remember the man who broke baseball’s color barrier seventy years ago, on April 17, 1947.
He died October 24, 1972 at the age of 53.
My first baseball reporting assignment was covering Jackie Robinson’s funeral.
On October 27, 1972, a taxi dropped me off in front of the grand entrance to Riverside Church in Manhattan. It was a sunny day with a bit of a chill, World Series weather.
I waded into the crowd outside, celebrity mourners on a Friday morning in their best Sunday suits, middle-aged men looking like they were gathered for an old-timers’ banquet.
I spotted Pee Wee Reese being interviewed by Howard Cosell. Nearby, Roger Kahn, who had written The Boys of Summer about Robinson's Dodgers, was chatting with Don Newcombe.
I was a 25-year-old rookie reporter for United Press International. I’d grown up in the city, a Brooklyn fan, like my dad.
He’d taken me to games at Ebbets Field. Duke Snider, Robinson and Reese were my childhood heroes.
On this day, I felt like a kid again.
My press pass got me inside a VIP enclave, which was roped off and guarded by the NYPD. A church office had been converted into a reception room.
I went inside and wandered among the greats of the game. There’s Hank Aaron! I shouted inside my head. There’s Willie Mays! Ernie Banks! Roy Campanella in his wheelchair.
My job was to gather notes and quotes for the sports editor writing the lead story. But I mainly stood on the fringe and gawked until it was time to file into the vast Gothic Revival church.
About 3,000 people filled every pew. A young black preacher delivered the eulogy, his booming voice and theatrical style gripping the audience.
“In his last dash, Jackie stole home,” said Reverend Jesse Jackson, pausing, before picking up speed, as if he too was racing to the plate.
“Pain, misery and travail have lost. Jackie is saved. His enemies can leave him alone. His body will rest, but his spirit and his mind and his impact are perpetual and as affixed to human progress as are the stars in the heavens, the shine in the sun and the glow of the moon.”
It was a hard act to follow. And nobody did. As the widow, Rachel Robinson, and her family filed out behind the coffin, we all stood.
Once outside, I found a ride in the funeral procession. The route to the cemetery was mapped out to travel through New York’s most heavily populated, black neighborhoods.
First in Harlem, later in Bedford-Stuyvesant, quiet crowds lined the sidewalks. Children in school uniforms stood at attention. Women sat on stoops, heads bowed. Old men leaned against lampposts and wept.
By the time we reached Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, it was near dusk. Dark clouds moved in as the pallbearers, Jackie’s former teammates – Reese, Newcombe, Jim Gilliam and Ralph Branca – Larry Doby and basketball hall of famer Bill Russell, carried the casket to the gravesite.
I stood beside a tree, apart from the scene, added some notes to the ones I’d written during the drive, found a payphone near the cemetery gate, and phoned in my notes before catching a ride back to Manhattan.
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