Integrating Major League baseball was just one of the challenges facing Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ great second baseman.
Buying a house in Connecticut’s white suburbs was another.
Jackie Robinson was more than a Hall of Fame baseball player. He fought against racial discrimination off the field, challenging assumptions about his race through his character, his accomplishments and his activism. During his 10 seasons with the Dodgers, he was Rookie of the Year in 1947, MVP in 1949 and six-time All Star. He ran the bases with abandon, bringing excitement to the game and changing the way it was played.
Jackie Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919, the son of a sharecropper in Cairo, Ga. He starred in athletics at UCLA, where he met his wife, Rachel Isum. He served as a lieutenant in the Army during World War II, then played for the Kansas City Monarchs after his honorable discharge. In 1945 Branch Rickey signed him to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ organization, where he played for the Montreal Royals minor league team before being called up to the Dodgers in 1947.
By 1954, Jackie and Rachel Robinson and their three children were living in the St. Albans neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., alongside such illustrious neighbors as Ella Fitzgrerald, Louis Armstrong, Roy Campanella and Count Basie.
It was a nice, middle-class neighborhood, but Rachel wanted more privacy and more space for the children to play. Jackie and Rachel believed the country was the best place to raise children.
Rachel started to look for houses in Westchester County and the Connecticut suburbs, but she encountered resistance from brokers and real estate agents. She bid on a house in Port Chester, N.Y., only to be told it was no longer on the market. A homeowner in Greenwich, Conn., refused to show her the house.
A reporter from the Bridgeport Herald was writing a story on housing discrimination, and caught wind of Rachel’s difficulty buying a house. The reporter called Rachel and interviewed her. She believed the brokers had tipped him off, trying to create the impression she was causing trouble.
Once the story ran, Dick and Andrea Simon stepped in. Dick co-founded the Simon & Schuster publishing company; their daughter Carly became a famous singer-songwriter.
They invited Rachel, local clergy and real estate agents to their home in North Stamford, Conn., to talk about helping the Robinsons. After the gathering, Rachel, Andrea and a real estate broker looked at property, as Rachel decided she wanted to build a modern dream home. As soon as Rachel saw the land overlooking the reservoir at 103 Cascade Rd., she decided that’s where she wanted to live.
The Robinsons built their home without incident, but one family moved away when they moved in. Newspaper columnists accused them of running away from their race. The white suburb, they said, ‘was not their place.’ A columnist for a black newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, “Jackie denies that he is trying to escape his own race.”
Jackie Robinson would live in Stamford, Conn., until his death in 1973 at the age of 53. He, Rachel and the children would make many friends among the almost exclusively white community. Neighborhood kids played softball on their front lawn. They hosted the members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, who landed on their front lawn in a helicopter. They held a jazz concert every year called an ‘Afternoon of Jazz’ with some of their old neighbors and 2,000 fans. In 1963, proceeds were donated to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Jackie Robinson had a reputation as tart-tongued and terrible tempered, but his neighbors didn’t see it. “He was a shy, gentle giant of a man with an enchanting smile and huge hands that almost swallowed yours when we shook hands,” said his neighbor, John Crosby.
“The Robinsons were a fine, talented family, and we were really fortunate to know them,” said Joanna Simon, daughter of Dick and Andrea.
Since Jackie Robinson’s death, many memorials and tributes have been dedicated to him. Every April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates ‘Jackie Robinson Day,’ on which every player on every team wears his number, #42. A park on the west side of Stamford was named for him. A life-size bronze statue is engraved with the words "COURAGE," "CONFIDENCE" and "PERSEVERANCE."