When the Cubs made me their first round draft pick in 1991, it was easy to see it as a dream come true. The chance to play as a profession, a game that I loved since I could walk. My brother, eight years my senior, taught me the game, rule-by-rule, inning-by-inning, until I learned to love not only playing it, but the stats, the decisions, the cities, the culture, the history.
One of the first memories post draft, was of seeing a video of the organization I was joining. The Chicago Cubs. But because of my fandom, even as a kid from Jersey, I knew players on all the teams from watching This Week in Baseball, The Game of the Week, or playing Strat-O-Matic with my brother and friends. When Jim Frey popped on the screen, I already knew him, just like I knew all of the players who moved around from my favorite Phillies teams to the Cubs through Dallas Green and others. Moreland, Bowa, Trillo, Ryno, and many more.
It was more than I even understood as a devout fan of the game.
When my wife was pregnant with our first child in Chicago, we decided that the middle names of our children would have significance. So in an early decision in the name game, we chose Robinson (after Jackie) to be given to our son, our first born. Shortly after that commitment, I read an entire book on Jack Roosevelt Robinson to the belly of my pregnant wife, hoping that Robinson’s story would inspire my son before he met the world.
Jackie Robinson passed away in 1972, when I was only two years old, so I had very little context of the overlap of his life and mine other than what I came to know later. But early in my childhood, I did learn about his story. This story would make even more sense to me after my brother had laid out his baseball curriculum for me to follow.
As my love for the game developed into a passion, by my junior year in college, I would get on the national radar as a potential first round pick. The sports agents starting swirling, and in an attempt to learn about the industry as a whole in advance of the 1991 draft, I would attend an African-American Athletic Association event. It was at this event where I would first meet Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie. I remember the awe I felt, but also the aura that encircled her. I was moved by her grace and elegance. She also took the time to talk with me before and after we took a picture together.
Not long after that meeting, the Cubs would select me as the 12th pick overall and although the honor and euphoria of this moment meaning that I would finally be starting my big league journey, I also knew that I was only on the first cloud of the baseball dream. It brought into focus how I, as a young African-American, needed to take a minute to recognize that Jackie Robinson helped make this possible.
The draft came and went and the Robinson family would never leave the heart of my inspiration during my career. I heard stories about the 60s and barnstorming from Fergie Jenkins, Billie Williams, and Ernie Banks, which was mind-blowing to have such access. I knew these men also made my arrival possible to be the bridge to Robinson. By the time I was a big leaguer with the Phillies, I knew much more about the Robinson family and their lives. I gained the amazing opportunity to team up with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, to support her Breaking Barriers initiative by spending time with students during her school tour. In Philadelphia (also my college town), I sat with young students to talk about how her father embodied many important characteristics that are universal for success. It was surreal to work with Sharon.
It did not take long to see the social opportunity as a professional athlete. The platform, the reach to have an impact beyond the game. Kids listened, they aspired through sports, they took pride in the team that represented their cities. But to connect the dots to the power of education, not just the math equations and sentence structures, but for self-awareness, history, showed where much of the power resides. These were the foundational elements of self-esteem and confidence, integral parts to one’s future. The Robinson family embodied these important traits and valued sharing them for humanity. There was an important connection for these students to see the imagery of Robinson and his breaking of the color barrier to empower young kids who looked like him. He expanded the range of what was achievable.
By the time I retired in 2005, I had a deep understanding of the finite window of a career and the short time that all players have to make their mark on the game. I saw the value of mentorship and passing the torch to other players who would come up behind me. I shared wisdom with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, some of which came to me through my Cubs days with Shawon Dunston, Chuck McElroy, Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, and Billie Williams. I remember this well when Mike Morgan on a day I got sent down to the minors in 1996, said words of encouragement that I repeated for Chase Utley when he got sent down in 2004. This was all in the spirit of baseball’s tradition of passing it down, but also in the spirit of how Jackie Robinson’s legacy endured for generations after his career ended. It would be a few years before my son was born which by then, I had crossed paths with Sharon Robinson a few more times.
Glanville with Shawon Dunston
My son and eventually my daughter would play Little League and once they got older, we would discuss Jackie Robinson. The first time I introduced him to my children, my daughter was fascinated simply with how he ran the bases. So that season, she spent all of her energy trying to walk and steal bases, replicating how Robinson danced around the bases. Using Little League rules (important distinction), she must have stolen over 30 bases that season as I smiled from the third base coaches box.
Around this time, in 2016 with ESPN, I would travel to Cuba as an analyst to cover the Rays-Cuban National team game when President Obama was in attendance. He elected to fly the Robinson family to the game and when I had a chance to ask him why he brought the family to Cuba, he referred to their inspiration for thawing the difficult tensions of American society through sport. They were a great example for diplomacy in any arena. I would learn that Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers trained in Havana the spring training before he would make his debut on April 15, 1947. And now, nearly 70 years later, they were returning. His brief spring training in Cuba expanded Robinson’s inspiration to a worldwide level as he gave hope for so many people of color after playing in games in Cuba and Panama before breaking camp. He was truly an international icon.
I once again experienced Rachel Robinson’s grace, in her 90s, after coming full circle in an interview with her before the game. She recalled the history and added her insight about the present. She was still hopeful, saw progress, and marveled at the idea that sitting 70 years after her husband broke the color line, there was an US President who was African-American in the place where her husband would make the Dodgers team for the first time. When asked what she thought Jackie would have said, she replied, “he would be so proud. I don’t know that he could even anticipated that it could happen. None of us did.”
Glanville having lunch with Rachel Robinson in Cuba
Besides the content of that interview, I had to pause to realize that I had sat down with royalty for a one-on-one interview, and in a scheduling twist, I had lunch with Mrs. Robinson by myself to discuss family, life, time, and baseball. I tried to wrap my mind around sitting with someone who went through so much in hopes for a more harmonious and accepting world, who could still be optimistic and feisty, and still want to see her family legacy inspire others to work together on one human team. I assumed she would be impatient knowing there was much more to be done for equality, but it was quite the opposite, she said she knew, this would not be an easy, always forward-moving journey.
I have taken the Robinson family’s example to express to my children that baseball has a rich history in its connection to American culture. That Jackie Robinson is part of their heritage in his fight for justice through the game, a game that was an integral part of their father’s life from the time he could walk. It gave them the opportunity to see the power of sports as a unifier at its best. An environment where we work hard to make the rules the same and fair for everyone even when we don’t always achieve it. We then play on our team to win, but we keep integrity at the heart of the competition. Then when all is over, we are good sports, we preserve the game recognizing that it is larger than even our fiercest team loyalty.
This is no different than our humanity. We come from different places, we have our own camps, our history, our baggage, our biases, but in the spaces that we co-occupy, be it geographic, political, sports, religious, we can be inspired by the story of Jackie Robinson to remember to keep humanity central. There is no Chicago Cubs without baseball, but there is baseball without the Chicago Cubs. We can still love the Cubs, but we know the game must endure, first and foremost, for any of our teams to endure. The story of Jackie Robinson in history and in particular African-American history is an American story for all of us to see our reflection in one pool.
My kids are still young and finding their paths. As I continue to learn more about the Robinson story, I only feel more certain of the honor of having their family name in our family. Time has shown that the hopes of the Robinson family is so intertwined with opportunity for all, I have come to understand it was not just my dream that was on the line on draft day in 1991, but the Robinson family saw their dream in all of us, too.