Clemente, Gehrig, Robinson Honored in Cooperstown
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—Sixty-one years after he broke baseball's color line, Jackie Robinson's legacy continues to unfold, most notably with Barack Obama's election as first African-American president of the United States. First and foremost, Robinson was a ballplayer trying to prove he belonged in the big leagues. In the process, he changed American society forever by paving the way for a civil rights movement before there even was one.
Even more than his electrifying style of play, his struggle for justice on and off the field defined him most. These qualities made Robinson and two other all-time greats—Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente—the natural choice for a new "Character and Courage" statue unveiled at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown.
"We are paying tribute to the legacies of three of the greatest men baseball has ever known," Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson said. "Each man left an imprint on our game and our country that goes well beyond the playing field."
Ribbon-cutting ceremonies featured Robinson's wife, Rachel; Clemente's wife, Vera, and sons Luis and Roberto Jr.; and Curt Schilling, who has contributed greatly to the fight against Lou Gehrig's Disease.
"We always knew from the very beginning that we had important goals to meet," Robinson said. Together, she and Jackie endured unrelenting insults, obstacles and challenges in their struggle for acceptance in baseball—and life.
"I didn't sit by, I walked with him by his side and experienced the same things he experienced," she said. "We always knew from the very beginning that we had important goals to meet. Instead of being bitter we decided that that was what he had to do to get where we wanted to be and where we wanted our people to be in this nation."
Blazing A Path
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often remarked that his work wouldn't have been possible if Jackie Robinson hadn't come before him.
"I'm extremely proud and excited about the election of Obama," Rachel Robinson said. "Jackie would be excited and proud and hopeful. Not just him, but all the people who worked hard to make this a better country will benefit from this and will take new inspiration."
"Character and Courage," featuring life-size likenesses of Robinson, Gehrig and Clemente is a gift of Hall of Fame supporter Bob Crotty and will be on permanent display in the Hall's main lobby.
"Growing up, my favorite player of all time was Lou Gehrig because of the way he conducted and handled himself as a person," Crotty said. "Just his entire work ethic. Also, for the dignity with which he handled himself when he got word that he had contacted that disease and the image of him at the microphone, stating that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I wanted to do something to honor Lou and the courage that he represented.
"Then I started thinking, Lou needs some company. There's many great players and many great Hall of Famers, but there's two that pretty much transcend the entire group and I quickly arrived at Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. When you put the three together they really do embody character and courage in every way."
Gehrig, "The Iron Horse," died tragically just shy of his 38th birthday after contracting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which over time causes motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord to shrink and disappear so that muscles no longer receive signals to move. His courageous effort to keep playing in the face of such afflictions, and his personal sorrow, is the subject of award-winning author Jonathan Eig's book, "Luckiest Man."
"Baseball taught Lou that he had the strength to do things he didn't think he could do before," Eig said during a panel discussion with fans at the Hall. That strength and the courage to deal with his fate before a packed Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939 continues to command admiration almost 70 years later.
Likewise, Clemente is remembered not just as the greatest right fielder of all time, who could cut down runners trying to score with missile-like throws from the warning track, but for the humanitarian work that led to his death in a plane crash while delivering relief supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. As one of the game's first Latin superstars, he too helped pave the way for others to follow in his footsteps and faced the same kinds of prejudice and misunderstanding as Robinson.
"All three men went through a lot to play the game of baseball," Robert Clemente Jr. said. "It wasn't just on the field that they left their footprints."
"In all three cases baseball was a vehicle to get a message across and inspire many millions of people," Luis Clemente said.
Schilling and his wife, Shonda, have been raising money and awareness to combat Lou Gehrig's Disease for the past 17 years. His organization, Curt's Pitch for ALS, allowed fans to donate to the ALS Association for every strikeout he threw. The image of his blood-stained sock and spikes with the letters, "K ALS"—short for "strike out ALS—is one of the most lasting memories of the 2004 playoffs and World Series.
"At a time when the country and world are looking for moral compass, it's an honor to be in their presence," he said, referring to the statues of Gehrig, Robinson and Clemente. "The association with Lou is one of awe for me. He has gotten bigger and more incredible as time goes on."
Schilling had an almost father-son relationship with the late Johnny Podres, his pitching coach on the Phillies. He recalled listening to Podres, a Brooklyn Dodger hero, tell stories about Robinson and the indignities he suffered such as being turned away from white-only hotels and restaurants.
"I can't imagine what you endured to go through that," Schilling told Rachel Robinson.
The "Character and Courage" statue was created by world-renowned sculptor Stanley Bleifeld who previously designed Hall of Fame tributes to Women in Baseball, Satchel Paige, and Podres and Roy Campanella—batterymates on the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers.
Luis Clemente told about a unique connection between his father and New York Giants Hall of Famer Monte Irvin. As a kid, growing up in Puerto Rico, one of Roberto Clemente's first exposures to baseball was watching Negro League players during their travels through the Caribbean. Clemente would climb trees to watch games at an old ballpark in San Juan and developed a liking for Irvin, before he joined the Giants. Eventually, Irvin let the young Clemente carry his bags for him so that he could get into the stadium for free.
As fate would have it, they wound up being inducted to the Hall Fame together in 1973, only several months after Clemente's passing.
Clemente, of course, was first signed by the Dodgers and played in Brooklyn before going to Pittsburgh where his career blossomed.
"There's many similarities in their lives, Jackie Robinson and my father," Luis Clemente said. "Wherever my father saw injustice he would say something. He would speak his mind. That was the message: when you see an injustice you can do something about it."