BOSTON -- The field at Fenway Park was covered with a coat of pale white snow on a rare January sunny Monday when the Red Sox celebrated what would have been Jackie Robinson's 86th birthday.It was a winter wonderland with the opening of another baseball season in Boston on April 11, barely 10 weeks away. Seated in the 406 Club, high above the lower deck, the diverse crowd of about 400 local children was treated to the festivities cast against the spectacular scene below. John Bryson Chane, the Bishop of Washington, D.C.'s Episcopal Diocese, serves the National Cathedral, but said he was no less in awe of Fenway in all its beatific, melting crystal glory.
"I serve the sixth largest cathedral in the world," he said. "And it's magnificent to be in the first cathedral ever built for baseball."Through the magic of video tape and the memories of such heralded speakers as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the youngsters were given a primer on the life of Robinson and his impact on both baseball and society. "Jackie Robinson once said that each life is not important in and of itself," said Kerry, last year's Democratic candidate for the presidency. "But the importance of each life is the impact it has on other lives. That's why he wasn't just a great leader for African-Americans. That's why he was truly an American hero." Kerry, a force behind the posthumous award to Robinson of the Congressional Gold Medal -- which will be presented to Robinson's family in the Capitol Rotunda on March 2 -- was the obvious star of the day. He grabbed the loudest reception among the panel of nine speakers that also included Sonya Pankey, one of Robinson's grandchildren; Della Britton Baeza, the president and chief executive of the Jackie Robinson Foundation; Scott Simon, a broadcaster for National Public Radio and author of a book about Robinson, and Larry Lucchino, the president and chief executive of the Red Sox. Lucchino asked his young audience how many of the students were aware of Robinson and his accomplishments. About 75 percent of them raised their hands. "I knew he was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball," said Kim Nguyen, a 15-year-old 10th-grader from a school she called, Another Course to College. "But I wasn't aware of everything else he accomplished." During the nearly 90-minute session, the children were told that Robinson was also a wonderful father and grandfather -- "Who picked me up and hugged me and always had a warm, tender smile," Pankey, his granddaughter said -- a civil rights leader and a humanitarian. "In 1947, when [Robinson] went into the Major Leagues, we had just come out of a war," Kerry said. "We had a separate black flying unit. We still hadn't integrated the military, let alone [team] sports. We hadn't integrated life in America. And it wasn't just on the baseball field. When he retired he opened up a bank in Harlem. He started doing low-income housing. He marched for civil rights. He helped to change the life in this country." The setting was magnificent with a podium and stage placed against the glistening glass panes separating the crowd from the cold air and the green confines of what may indeed be America's most enchanting ballpark. The box itself takes its identity from the batting average (.406) former Red Sox great Ted Williams attained in 1941. He was the last Major Leaguer to reach the lofty .400 plateau in a single season. With all this as a backdrop, it was easy to recall stories of other humanitarian feats that were told in deference to Robinson. When the then four-year-old Bishop Chane was hospitalized with a broken leg, "Who came to visit me but Ted Williams," he said. "He gave me hope and that was the beginning of a new life for me. And Jackie Robinson is really the icon for all of you. His gift is that his death did not end his legacy. It began it again." Neal was the mayor of Springfield, Mass., before beginning in 1988 a 17-year career as the representative of the state's 2nd District. He spoke about a team from Springfield during the 1930s that refused to play in the American Legion World Series because its one African-American player was barred from the competition, staged that year in North Carolina. "Those guys went off to be war heroes, federal judges and other distinguished careers," said Neal, who presented the Robinson gold medal bill to the House of Representatives nearly two years ago. "But they all said their best moment was when they got on a train that day and said, 'If he can't play, we're not going to play.' "I call this to your attention because even before Jackie Robinson, there were people in America of good will, who wanted to do the right thing. And Robinson's success brought that all to a new level." The overriding message of the day was evidently absorbed. When asked the most important thing she had learned on Monday, the bright-faced Nguyen said: "It taught me that we can make a difference in this world. Don't stop and don't give up."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.