NEW YORK — This was already an especially big year for the Jackie Robinson family, with next month’s 70th anniversary of the breaking of baseball’s color barrier, the dramatic unveiling of No. 42’s statue on April 15 at Dodger Stadium, and the 95th birthday of Jackie’s wife, Rachel, in July.
It just got a lot bigger. The Jackie Robinson Museum has just been cleared for takeoff.
At Monday night’s annual awards dinner, where Hall of Fame-bound baseball writer Claire Smith and Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky were each honored with the ROBIE Award, Jackie Robinson Foundation CEO Della Britton Baeza announced that JRF has received a sudden $6.5 million gift over three years that puts it over the fundraising hump in allowing construction to begin soon.
Strada Education Network, formerly USA Funds, announced the grant to the Jackie Robinson Foundation to support its mission of education and leadership development. The grant is the largest single donation to JRF since its founding by Rachel Robinson in 1973, the year after the death of her husband. The grant funds 30 JRF Scholars, allows the Foundation to launch a large expansion of its celebrated college success program, and caps off the fundraising goal that allows for the construction of the museum.
“The Jackie Robinson Museum is important because it’s my mom’s last big thing that she wanted to achieve, and we feel like we’re going to be ready to start building relatively soon,” said Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter and MLB’s educational programming consultant and author. “We’ve been planning this for many years, these things take a long time, and we still have a lot more fundraising to continue to do. But it will sort of give us another branch to the Foundation, and a way to reach the young people and engage them in conversation about life and social change and ongoing issues that we are all having to deal with.”
William Hansen, president and CEO of Strada Education Network, said the museum will be a “center for advancing the social justice issues, including the achievement gap in higher education that Jackie and Rachel Robinson so courageously addressed.”
The museum, which will be located at 75 Varick Street near the Holland Tunnel entrance in Manhattan, will chronicle the legend’s storied athletic career and his defining, long-lasting impact across society through state-of-the-art exhibits, precious artifacts, film and other media. It will serve as an activity-oriented venue, a destination for innovative educational programming and a place for vibrant dialogue on critical social issues. Construction is expected to begin this spring, and further details will be coming soon.
In 2016, Major League Baseball donated $1 million toward the museum’s fundraising goal. A portion of Strada’s donation also goes to that same effort, putting it at $22 million of the overall $42 million needed to complete the museum by 2019, which will be the 100th anniversary year of Robinson’s birth.
Smith will be honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer as the first woman to receive the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s J.G. Taylor Spink Award. A pioneer within the baseball community for 35 years, Smith was the first female to cover a Major League beat full time and the second national baseball columnist in the country. In her career, she has written for multiple newspapers, including The Hartford Courant, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. She is now a coordinating news editor with ESPN.
“The ROBIE Award, I can’t even call it a dream come true because that would be understating what this means to me,” Smith said. “I have loved the idea of Rachel and Jackie Robinson since I was in elementary school. I saw ‘The Jackie Robinson Story’ when I was in third grade at St. James Elementary School in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and I fell in love with the idea of what Rachel and Jackie did for America, and did for baseball. I became an entrenched baseball fan at that point. My mom and dad were baseball fans, my mom was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, so I was already loving the Dodgers, but that sealed the deal.”
Smith, who was honored in January at the annual New York Baseball Writers Dinner, has been an influential voice among African-American writers and editors throughout her career. She is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of three New York Times Publishers Awards.
“To come along at this point in my career, the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson, to have so many wonderful things happen at the start of 2017, I know this isn’t the culmination yet, I know that Cooperstown is coming, but to receive a phone call saying that the Jackie Robinson Foundation, that Rachel and Sharon and Len Coleman want to honor me, it made me cry,” Smith said. “It still makes me cry. Rachel and Jackie Robinson are my heroes, and I love them. I love what they did for America, and I love what they did in prompting me to follow their story, to follow the story of America and baseball’s intertwined history with this country, and I am forever grateful. I will cherish this for the rest of my life.”
Sharon Robinson said of Smith: “We are very proud of Claire and proud she is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. It is a special evening for us. She’s a woman and she’s a pioneer in baseball and baseball journalism, so to be able to honor her and have my mom here is really great.”
Gorsky is chairman and CEO of Johnson & Johnson. A longtime advocate of diversity and inclusion, Gorsky has been named one of the “100 Most Inspiring Leaders” by Pharma Voice. He is executive sponsor of two Johnson & Johnson employee resource groups, the Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Veteran’s Leadership Council. The former Army veteran is on many boards, including the Congressional Medal of Honor board.
“To think that I’m actually able to be up here this evening with the Jackie Robinson award and to see those iconic people — at a time when I believe words like ‘iconic’ and ‘famous’ and ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ are so overused — to see them truly as they were intended, in something like the Jackie Robinson Foundation, I couldn’t be more thankful,” Gorsky said.