Fort Wayne’s Jackie Robinson Connection
In case you aren’t aware, today is Jackie Robinson Day. And no, it’s not just because the major motion picture, 42, was released to theaters Friday and topped the weekend box office as it brought in about $27.3 million.
Every year since 2004, Major League Baseball has celebrated Jackie Robinson Day on April, 15 to commemorate the anniversary of when Robinson broke the league’s color barrier in 1947. As part of the celebration on this day, every player in the majors wears uniform number 42 instead of his regular number (except for the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, who is the final remaining player wearing 42 after Major League Baseball retired the number in 1997).
Robinson, who made the jump from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League in 1945 to Triple-A’s Montreal Royals in 1946 to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, never played in Fort Wayne. But, did you know that Robinson visited the Summit City on at least three occasions?
Imagine what it must have been like to be a high school kid and have a national hero walk past your locker as you make your way to algebra class? And keep in mind, at this point in 1955, Robinson was still a Dodger. He retired after the 1956 season.
Robinson’s visit to Central Catholic in 1955 wasn’t his last trip to the Summit City, though.
Here’s a photo from 1962 of Robinson with former Dodger Carl Erskine, Dale McMillen aka “Mr. Mac,” longtime Indian and Hall of Famer Bob Feller, and Red Sox great and Hall of Famer Ted Williams. They’re sitting on a bench at Fort Wayne’s McMillen Park on Progress Day for the Wildcat Baseball League, which McMillen founded. It was Robinson’s second time visiting Fort Wayne for the Wildcat Baseball League’s Progress Day, according to The Journal Gazette.
You can watch video of Robinson speaking to the crowd of kids at McMillen Park, thanks to the News-Sentinel. Below is a transcript of what the famed number 42 said:
“Thank you very much, Mr. Mac. First of all, let me say how much I enjoy coming out here. I have a very important picnic that we have to get to tomorrow in New York, but upon hearing about this particular program, I felt that it would be to my advantage to come out and participate. I know that anything that Carl Erskine would be associated with would have to be a very fine thing.
But I just want to say to all of you youngsters that I think you’re very fortunate to have a man who’s as interested in you as Mr. McMillen is. I can’t think of anything that could be more important than teaching you the values of people being interested in you and in your welfare. And I certainly want to take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. McMillen and above all, congratulate you fellas, for your determination. As we watch you on the ball field, we recognize that perhaps you didn’t have the best ability as ballplayers, but I think you have something that’s a lot more than just being a ballplayer. Your determination and your desire to succeed is very, very important.
You have the start, the rest is up to you, and I hope Mr. McMillen has the strength and energy and the complete desire to see this wonderful opportunity completely through. Because as I said earlier, you are our future leaders and the kind of encouragement we give you today is going to be very important later on in life. So good luck to you, and continued success as a member of the Wildcat League.”
In sticking with the Jackie Robinson theme here, Woodrow Buddy Johnson and Count Basie… take it away!
Fort Wayne’s connection with Jackie Robinson is another small piece of the city’s rich baseball history. Were you or anyone you know lucky enough to meet Jackie at Central Catholic or McMillen Park? If so, we’d love to hear the story. Likewise, if you saw 42 and have a review, feel free to share. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @John_G_Nolan.