At His Side

Rachel Robinson helped shape the course of her time

February 01, 2013
Rachel Robinson speaking during the re-dedication of her husband's, Jackie Robinson, plaque. (NBHOF Library)

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Lenny DiFranza 

Rachel Robinson has been in the public eye for more than five decades, working for justice and equal rights. Though some know her only as the wife of Jackie Robinson, the famous ballplayer and civil rights icon, that was only one chapter in Rachael Robinson’s story. Over the years she has built a lifetime of achievement. 

Born Rachel Annetta Isum in Los Angeles on July 19, 1922, even as a young woman she exhibited the traits of her success: intelligence, ambition, determination, elegance, and courage. Education was important to unlock her potential and she enrolled at UCLA to study nursing. There as a freshman, she met Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a senior and football star, and their relationship began. 

While he left school to work and then was drafted into the Army during World War II, Rachael finished her degree while working, which included a night shift as an airplane riveter. Their lives changed after the war when Jackie began the difficult process of integrating baseball, an important model for all of America. 

He wouldn’t take on this battle alone. Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager who was looking for the right man to integrate baseball, considered Jackie’s commitment to Rachael an important qualification. They married before spring training of 1946 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team. That season with Montreal, the franchise observed the way Rachael fit in among the white players’ wives and gained confidence that she was well suited to support Jackie on the road to integration. 

Rachel Robinson took care of Jackie and their three children during his playing days in the bright lights of celebrity. She was unwavering as a witness and council during his often difficult life at the ballpark and his role as spokesman for equality. She shared his triumphs and challenges, absorbed the pain from hate mail sent to their house and passed threatening letters to the team. Rickey called her Jackie’s “tower to lean on.” 

When Jackie retired from baseball, with their youngest child entering first grade, Rachel returned to her original career path. She earned her master’s degree in psychiatric nursing in 1960 and practiced for a dozen years, including seven years of teaching at Yale University. All the time she continued to stand with Jackie in battles for civil rights and economic opportunity. 

Their oldest son, Jackie, Jr. died in a car accident 1971, and that devastating loss was followed by Jackie’s death the next year and then her mother in 1973. Rachael emerged from that difficult time, took on the job of keeping Jackie’s memory alive and continued his work. 

One of Rachel Robinson’s projects was to run the Jackie Robinson Development Corporation, which her late husband had only initiated. During her 10 years at the helm, it built more than 1,300 low and medium-income housing units. 

In 1973, Rachael formed the Jackie Robinson Foundation which offers college grants to minority students and trains them to be new generations of leaders. Over the years, the thriving organization has helped more than 1,200 students across the country. 

Rachel Robinson has received many awards and honors, in addition to those she accepted on behalf of her husband. She joined Commissioner Bud Selig and President Bill Clinton on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s first game with Brooklyn. They retired Jackie’s number 42 across all of baseball and, every year since, it is a day for celebration and rededication to equality in the game. 

In 2007, Baseball honored Rachel Robinson with the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award, making her the first recipient for contributions to baseball off the field. In order to ensure Jackie’s legacy, she supported the editing of his Hall of Fame plaque in 2008 to emphasize to future generations his role in integrating baseball. In 2009, she received the UCLA Medal, the school’s highest honor, for a lifetime dedicated to education, social activism, and professional achievements. 

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’Neil, Elston Howard, Rachel Robinson, the Evolution of Night Baseball, Welday Walker, Herb Washington, Connie Morgan, Bill White, Sam Lacy, Octavius Catto, Willie Horton, Bob Watson, Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson. 

Lenny DiFranza is the assistant curator of new media at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum