In 2008, the board of the Jackie Robinson Foundation decided to begin exploring the creation of a museum dedicated to the trailblazing ballplayer, the first step toward realizing Rachel Robinson’s dream of a permanent space to celebrate her late husband. By the following spring, signs with images of the Dodgers great were plastered on the windows of the first floor space at Varick and Canal Streets in Soho, announcing that a museum would be opening there in 2010. But that year came and went, and by the summer of 2011, the signs were changed to read “Coming 2014.” That didn’t happen, either, and for a while, the date was taken off the signs altogether until they were replaced with ones promising a 2019 opening. That passed, too, but three more years and one pandemic later, the Jackie Robinson Museum is finally, as of Monday, officially open.
The delay in opening the museum’s doors wasn’t for lack of effort, but the setbacks were many. Della Britton, the foundation’s president and CEO, says that following the Great Recession, the foundation had to de-prioritize fundraising for the museum so as not to jeopardize its scholarship program that’s been in place for decades. In 2012, the space was spared during Sandy, but the aftermath was bad in its own way, as the flood-testing and insurance processes became more arduous.
The museum saw a boost in fundraising after the Robinson biopic 42 was released in 2013, and it got a $1 million donation from Major League Baseball after Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015. (The league has since donated another $1 million.) Then around the start of 2017, the museum finally got the donation that put it over the top of the $25 million it needed to start construction: a $6 million grant from the Strada Education Network, with $1.5 million earmarked specifically for the museum. (Britton says the donation came after William Hansen, Strada’s president and CEO and a former deputy secretary of Education under George W. Bush, watched 42 on a plane.)
A ceremonial “groundbreaking” took place the following year, and work on the space began — until it was abruptly stopped in 2020 because of COVID. Work was slow to restart, Britton says, because other commercial projects around the city were taking precedence, and the finishing touches weren’t completed until this summer, when Rachel Robinson cut the ribbon in a ceremonial opening in July.
Britton says despite the delays, she never doubted the museum would eventually open its doors. “Never, never, never,” she says. “I just thought, the team we have here, our staff is so passionately committed to this that even with the setbacks, there was no question we were gonna somehow get it done.”
That final delay at least had a silver lining, as it allowed the museum ample time to focus on content development and sort through the 4,500 artifacts in its possession, including the Robinson family’s own collection. The result is impressive.
The museum is divided into two main galleries: one that’s centered around a timeline of Robinson’s life, placed in the context of 20th Century America, and another focused on Robinson’s athletic achievements. This means in baseball, of course, but also in football, track, and basketball. (He was the first athlete in UCLA history to letter in four sports.)
One area of the first gallery features 42 touch screens, each programmed with videotaped thoughts on Robinson from notable figures like Sandy Koufax, Eric Holder, CC Sabathia, and Ken Burns. Another section describes the hate mail Robinson’s call-up to the majors generated, with one letter from a New Orleans lawyer to Dodgers president Branch Rickey calling it “deplorable” (and then expanding on this thought with far uglier language). Other displays focus on Robinson’s time as a soldier in the Army and on his family life.
Mixed in with the timeline are video and audio stations, as well as objects like Robinson’s original plaque from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; per his wishes, it makes no mention of his breaking the the major-league color barrier. (A new plaque was installed in the Hall in 2008; Rachel Robinson said then that “a very important part of Jack’s life has been acknowledged today in a more total way.”)
The more sports-centric space, with a 1/16-scale model of Ebbets Field near its center, houses some of Robinson’s many, many trophies, both historic (his 1949 National League MVP award) and less famous: a plaque from the Harlem YMCA branch, thanking him for sponsoring a Little League team, or “The Two Friends Award,” presented to Robinson and teammate Pee Wee Reese for helping “make the Branch Rickey dream come true.” That certificate was awarded to the pair by Atlanta’s 100 Percent Wrong Club, which was founded to focus attention on great Black athletes, and was presented in memory of A.F. Herndon, a businessman and former slave who founded what would become the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.
There are dozens of vintage scorecards, ticket stubs, trading cards, and old jerseys on display, but also artifacts that have their own tiny backstories, like a baseball featuring a hand-drawn caricature of the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, which was presented to Robinson by the students of Chelsea Vocational High School in recognition of the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series win and Robinson’s famous steal of home in Game 1. (As visitors are reminded in Sabathia’s remembrance video, Berra forever believed that Robinson should have been called out on the play.)
Britton says the final product even impressed Rachel Robinson, now 100 years old, who has long wanted a museum to tell the story of Jackie’s life, both on and off the field. “I’m pleased to tell you that I even considered retiring because she liked it,” Britton says with a laugh. “I thought, okay, my world is complete.”
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