Jackie Robinson Day
In 1997, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig directed all MLB franchises to retire jersey number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. For many teams, this only amounted to a special pre-game ceremony at one of one of their home games that season. However, the San Francisco Giants—who play in a very diverse community and also celebrate a rich African American and Latin heritage among current and past players—wanted to leverage this special occasion by creating an educational component that would reach elementary and middle school students in San Francisco. By doing so, it would also increase the “shelf life” of the jersey retirement and become a full-fledged community outreach program.
Phoenix Communications, at the time the video/film arm of Major League Baseball, had just released a documentary film about Robinson called “Breaking Barriers.” I requested they supply me with a couple hundred copies, which I then distributed to San Francisco schools. After showing the film to their students, each school asked the youngsters to write an essay on “Why Jackie Robinson is important to America.” At a few targeted schools, the Giants also provided a player to speak before the film was shown. I brought Ellis Burks, an All-Star outfielder who grew up in Mississippi, with me to one inner city school.
As part of the program, the Giants provided a complimentary ticket to the Jackie Robinson Day game for every student who completed an essay. In addition, each school selected one overall winner for the essay contest. That winner from each school received four complimentary game tickets and also four invitations to a private reception at Candlestick Park before the game. The reception featured such African American luminaries as Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon; Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Hank Aaron; Giants’ Manager Dusty Baker; Negro League legend Buck O’Neil and other dignitaries.
Media packets were provided to local journalists a week prior to the event. Besides information and newspaper clippings about Robinson, the kits also included copies of some of the winning essays from students. Many media pulled poignant excerpts from the essays to demonstrate not only the capability of youngsters to understand the significance of Robinson, but also that his fight to break the color barrier was as pertinent today as it was 50 years previously.
The Giants’ innovative program not only ingratiated the organization with many people of color in the Bay Area, but it also served the team well in their relations with minority players on the roster. Soon thereafter, Major League Baseball adopted the Giants’ program as a league-wide initiative that continues to this day.