During last week’s July 4th celebrations at the U.S. Embassy in Romania, there were a number of very special events and guests. Partnering with the Romanian Federation of Baseball and Softball (RFBS) the Romanian national team helped host the week-long extravaganza. Continuing their celebration of Jackie Robinson’s life and legacy, the embassy invited several former MLB players, as well as Mr. Robinson’s daughter Sharon, to the festivities. In their release concerning the event the Embassy said, “Through this program we will highlight diversity, tolerance, and inclusion through sports diplomacy, as well as stress rule of law. Whether you are black or white, rich or poor, all can play baseball and all must abide by the same set of rules.” The party began on the 3rd of July with a viewing of the movie 42. Ms. Robinson introduced the film and led a discussion on bullying following the movie. The screening took place at one of the Bucharest malls. Invited guests included disadvantaged youth as well as youth baseball teams from Alexandria and Calarasi. Before the screening Ms. Robinson personally signed copies of her book, The Hero Two Doors Down to each person in attendance. Ms. Robinson told EBSM, “They totally loved it [the film] and they came up with some good questions so it was incredible. It was really fun.” Robinson said she had concerns about the audience understanding the content of the movie, “I tried to set it up and then, as I was watching the film, I said, ‘Wait a minute. I don’t even know if these kids know what segregation or Jim Crow, these things that they’re talking about, are.’ I felt bad but afterwards I asked them, ‘Was this new information for you?’ and they said no. It was amazing because I was pretty shocked they understood what was happening in that film.”
On the 4th of July the embassy compound was decked out in all things USA including a bandstand with bunting. With help from a local movie studio, the area was transformed into a baseball field. Not just any field, Ebbets Field, the very spot where Robinson first broke the color barrier in baseball. To add a touch of authenticity Robinson memorabilia, as well as equipment and other props, were utilized in the decorating. The front gate was the same replica used during the Jackie Robinson game. It is being stored by the studio for future games now that Jackie Robinson Day will be an annual event in Romania. Sharon Robinson said, “How they decorated is absolutely incredible, right down to the detail.” During the afternoon the Romanian national team faced off, once again, against the soldiers stationed at Mihail Kolgalniceanu (MK) base. The US team included special guest, and former MLB player, LaTroy Hawkins. Once again, it was the Romanian national team who left victorious making their record 2-0 against the base. Romanian national team member Eduard Pirvu told EBSM, “For us this was another big event this year. Our team needs this promoting and it wouldn’t be possible without the Bucharest U.S. Embassy’s involvement. We thank them for their partnership.”
That evening there was an official embassy reception that included the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, the Sports Minister, the President of the Olympic Committee, former Romanian Olympiads and sports federation presidents. Nearly 300 Romanian children were in attendance over the week. Some participated in clinics with Hawkins and fellow retired MLB players Marlon Anderson and Scott Erickson. The children also watched the film and attended Breaking Barriers programs with Ms. Robinson. Pirvu said, “I hope in the near future we will build our first baseball stadium so we can grow more and more.” It seems the Embassy has the same goal in mind telling EBSM, “Ms. Robinson was at the game representing her father’s legacy and encouraged the children to get involved in baseball so Romania can grow a strong national baseball team.” During the festivities on the 4th, Ms. Robinson took a short break to talk with European Baseball and Softball magazine about her father’s legacy, the events in Romania and her own work with the Breaking Barriers program.
Ms. Robinson was the middle of Jackie and his wife Rachel’s three children. Born in New York, she had two brothers, older brother Jackie and younger brother David. Sharon followed in her mother’s nursing footsteps and became a midwife early in life. Later in her career she switched to the classroom and became an educator. She taught strictly at the university level and has held classes at Yale School of Nursing, Columbia, Howard and Georgetown. After 20 years in nursing and education, with her son fully grown, Ms. Robinson pursued a less private life. In 1997 Robinson partnered with Major League Baseball (MLB), agreeing to become the developer of, and spokesperson for, their Breaking Barriers program. The program involves a classroom education element and essay contest based on nine core values: Courage, Integrity, Persistence, Determination, Teamwork, Excellence, Citizenship, Justice and Commitment. Robinson explained, “We give the kids core values that are not necessarily behavioral-based or directed. Values that really do help you think about the world you’re living in and who you want to be.” Robinson says, “The intent is that they will internalize the message that obstacles or barriers are a part of life and that we all have them and that we have to have strategies to deal with them as they come up. There are also different types of obstacles, mental and physical, so we try to cover all of that in a curriculum.” The curriculum begins with Jackie Robinson’s story as a barrier breaker so the screening was a perfect beginning to this week-long event for the youth of Romania.
During the screening of 42, Robinson opened a discussion with the youth in the audience, “When I asked them about bullying they said, ‘Oh yeah. It does exist.’ I mean they were shaking their heads in the audience. I think all these things are relevant. Kids all over the world are going through them.” While the Breaking Barriers program is currently limited to the United States, Robinson sees the potential in bringing it abroad. “I talked about it with the U.S. Embassy people. They wanted to have Jackie Robinson Day again next year and I suggested this would maybe be a chance to incorporate the essay contest and recognize the winners on that day.” In fact, one of Robinson’s first visits as spokesperson was to Great Britain back in the first year of the program. Sharon explained, “I wanted to think through if we did get a chance to take the program to a place where they didn’t really have baseball, what things might be helpful to understanding the game.”
Educators interested in learning more about the program can review resources provided by the program’s partner Scholastic. Robinson said, “The educational program has reached kids that don’t know baseball or are not necessarily baseball fans.” This is a great starting point for many EU federations looking to introduce the sport to their own schools and communities. The program hosts an annual essay contest and provides classroom materials, including lesson plans and videos, to help teachers structure lessons that incorporate the core values. We asked Robinson if there were any standout essays or moments from her 20 years working with the program. “Every year there’s some child that I just can’t wait to meet, that I’ve been worried about. I wanna hug them and all of that. I guess the most poignant story from this year, for me, was a girl, actually two different girls, from California. One wrote an essay all about self esteem. She had body images and lacked self-esteem. The other girl, a straight A student, was struggling with being defined by more than her intellect.” Robinson explained how the essay contest helps students like these work through their problems. “The purpose of the essays is to see how they absorbed this material and to see how they give it back to us. They basically tell their story by describing their barrier and then going into their steps. It’s all about self-expression. We look for process. How are they overcoming this barrier, even if they are still working on it? We want to see that. They have to tie in the values they have used to get to that next step.”
Robinson will be retiring from the role of central spokesperson in 2019 but will remain with the program. Further development into Europe will likely become the responsibility of her expected successor LaTroy Hawkins. Robinson has hand-picked Hawkins for the role. “LaTroy’s just amazing with kids. I’ve seen him in action at the schools. I think he can carry it off. I’ve known him for years and I feel he has a strong character. He’d be the right person. I don’t know how he’ll develop it but it’s going to be interesting because I know that the MLB would also like to get the game of baseball taught in the school system again. We’re in the system with the curriculum but, by having baseball players leading the charge, hopefully you’d be able to include clinics when they go to visit the schools. It will be up to him.”
In 1996, Sharon released her first book, Stealing Home: An Intimate Family Portrait by the Daughter of Jackie Robinson. Since that time she has penned nearly a dozen more, mostly children’s books. Her latest release, The Hero Two Doors Down (2016), was given out to all the children in attendance at the Embassy events. The book focuses on the relationship between the Robinsons, a black family, and their Jewish neighbors in 1948 Brooklyn. Sharon shared with us the story of how the two families became close. “Steve [a childhood friend and neighbor] was over at our house helping my dad decorate the Christmas tree. My dad said, ‘Is your tree up yet?’ and Steve replied, ‘We don’t have one.’ My dad, not understanding the Jewish religion and traditions, went out and bought Steve a Christmas tree. When his mother answered the door on this first meeting she was horrified. But, of course, she can’t say anything because Jackie Robinson’s bringing her son a tree. That’s how our families met and became life-long friends.” The book is a child’s view of their history together.
The Robinson children grew up in a time in American history where their father was not alone in breaking barriers and creating change. Both their parents were strong activists and they raised their children in this environment. The family attended the 1963 march on Washington led by Dr. King. “Before the march my dad gathered us. He said he hoped to talk about where we stood as a family and he talked about the importance of us having a family mission so I feel like I had direction from that point in my life.” Robinson told EBSM. “That year we went to the march on Washington, we had Dr. King to our house, we had our first jazz concert to raise money so it was the first time, I saw my father going south and enjoying his activism and he brought it into our home.” Ms. Robinson paralleled her experiences then with what is happening in modern-day Romania. “My first night here was a stormy night. I was in the hotel room and I heard chanting. I didn’t know what they were saying, so I didn’t know what they were protesting, but it was dramatic because of the lightening and the fact that it was after dark. I used to march but demonstrations happening at night are new. It was very civil, very organized. The police were there more for crowd control than anything else but there was no battle between the forces. It was really allowing them to voice their opinions.” Ms. Robinson grew up in one of the most fast-changing, explosive and emotional times in American history. We asked her what she would tell kids today, going through similar civil change in their own lives, that she wished people had told her during her youth. “What I felt back then, because my brothers and I integrated our schools and our neighborhood, was that there was no real community around us while we did this. We were not a part of the larger movement, or at least, we didn’t feel a part of the larger movement. What I felt was I was just doing this. I felt a kind of isolation from the larger movement and I wanted to be a part of it. The other thing I felt, even my parents sort of expected us to be able to handle things and so we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk about the larger movement or, you know, how are we dealing with these bigger issues. So as I talk to kids, when I try to bring it down to them today, I do tend to focus on things like, ‘You know, my dad was bullied in 1947. What does the bully want? What were they trying to get from him? How did he react? How did he respond? How did he achieve in spite of that kind of bullying?’ And they can relate to that. Also, in some ways it was almost clearer what was happening in the 60s and the 50s and now it’s so complex. It’s not one thing. It’s not black and white. So I want kids to know we’ve been there, we’ll get through this as well. That’s what I think I missed the first time going around because I didn’t have that same frame of reference. I didn’t know the consequences of marches or the consequences of riots so you had all this fear and a feeling of, you know, is this ever going to be over? Kids are facing similar things right now. That’s basically what I think about.” We asked Ms. Robinson about her own career path and how her parents’ activism, and the lessons she learned from them in her youth, shaped her own personal and professional path. “My dad told me to find work that you love. I had watched him over his lifetime go from one area to another so I knew it was okay to kind of shift around. I feel like my focus has always been on women and children. Even the work I’m doing with MLB I feel like I’m still doing midwifery. I was an educator as a midwife. I taught university. That’s why, when baseball said, you can come work with us, I think they thought I was just going to go to the schools and talk about my dad. Well I wasn’t going to do that because I’m an educator and I wanted a real program. So I think it’s very much personalized. When I was a nurse midwife I had the luxury of just being Sharon. When I moved into baseball it was the first time I ever had a career that was based on family legacy but I was okay with that because I had these 20+ years. I raised my son, I had this time to be who I was, have a career that was just mine. I was ready to submerge and still have something that was distinctive. Then, as a family mission, we have the Jackie Robinson Foundation and I’ve gotten lots of support from my mother to have these two things, these two threads.”
Ms. Robinson finished out her week in Romania speaking with the students enrolled in Romania’s FLEX (The Future Leaders Exchange) program before attending one final baseball game. This game was very special indeed. Throughout the week, former MLB players LaTroy Hawkins along with Marlon Anderson and Scott Erickson trained the two youth teams from Alexandria and Calarasi in daily clinics, lasting 2-3 hours. With their teams they attended all the festivities, the movie screening and 4th celebration, as well as special tours set up by the embassy. The men then coached their teams in the demonstration game on the 5th. This was the final event of the week before all the guests returned to their respective homes. We ended our interview with Ms. Robinson asking what message she’d like to leave the children of Romania. “I believe that children have a voice. They have a strong voice and we need to develop that. I equate voice with confidence. My goal is to raise self-confident kids and help them see that they have a voice, even as a child. That they can grow into that voice as they become adults. Voices change over time, as we all know, but it’s really all about how you feel about yourself inside.” We thank Ms. Robinson for her generosity of spirit, her willingness to share her wisdom and the opportunity to spend time learning from her grace. Inside the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest as well as the RFBS offices, everyone should feel very good indeed. They started with common ground and envisioned a better way to connect the youth of their community. They are using baseball as a catalyst, creating a full sensory experience, to ensure these core values reach every child. We at EBSM certainly look forward to seeing all the amazing benefits this partnership will provide both European baseball and the children of Romania.