April 27, 2017
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This article by Filip Bondy originally appeared on The New York Times

Sharon Robinson will have a place, finally, to showcase her mother’s flowing white wedding gown. The pleated dress has been sitting in a dark closet in Connecticut for some 70 years, avoiding the ravages of age, and soon enough it will be on display at a new Jackie Robinson Museum in New York, near the Holland Tunnel.

There will be other memorabilia at the museum about Jackie Robinson’s life and baseball career, plenty of it, when the place opens in spring 2019. There will be baseball bats, autographed photos and videos of Robinson pilfering yet another base. But that isn’t really the big idea. At the ceremonial groundbreaking on Thursday, founders expressed the hope that this long-sought gallery will educate and inspire a fresh generation of children to conquer barriers and battle bullies of all demographics.

“Mom turns 95 in July, and this is her birthday present,” Sharon Robinson said about her mother, Rachel. “This is what she wanted for his legacy, to show that struggle is a process. We knew him in the family not as a baseball player, but as an activist.”

The museum has been in the works for decades, but the Jackie Robinson Foundation only recently collected enough money to make it reality. A reported $6.5 million grant over three years from the Strada Education Network put the project over the top, giving the Jackie Robinson Foundation a total of $25 million — enough to remodel the loftlike space on the first floor of the building at the corner of Varick and Canal Streets. Organizers estimate they will need an additional $18 million to operate the museum, and will continue collecting donations to reach that level.

Major League Baseball, which honors Robinson each year with a special day and has retired his No. 42 jersey, donated $1 million. Rob Manfred, the commissioner, was on hand at the groundbreaking. He called Robinson’s signing by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers “the greatest moment in the history of baseball.”

“It took our game beyond sport,” Manfred said. “There are a lot of American heroes, but Jackie Robinson is in a class by himself.”

Decades after Robinson integrated baseball and helped spur the civil rights movement, Manfred’s sport is still not a racial or ethnic utopia. Despite Derek Jeter’s bid to purchase the Miami Marlins with Jeb Bush, there is not much of a minority presence among ownership. Although the percentage of Hispanic players has vastly increased, there are fewer African-American players at every level than there were in the past. And the visage of Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ controversial mascot, still smiles from Cleveland jerseys and caps.

Manfred said he had no timetable for reducing Wahoo’s presence, although negotiations with team ownership are continuing. As for the lack of African-Americans in the game today, the commissioner urged greater context.

“We have a diverse work force,” Manfred said.

In the age of private collectors, the museum will need to reach out to them to donate or lend some of Robinson’s memorabilia. At the site of the groundbreaking ceremony, a catalog was distributed that advertised Robinson-related items for auction — including the original bat said to be used by him when he struck his only All-Star Game home run in 1952.

Ten percent of the sales are to go to the museum — but will the gallery be able to borrow back such items for display beginning in 2019?

Joseph Plumeri, the chairman of the Jackie Robinson Museum Legacy Campaign, predicted that supplies of memorabilia would not be a problem, that owners would be happy to lend their treasures to the museum so the public could share them. Besides, he said, the museum will be more than just a bunch of baseball souvenirs.

“A lot of museums can be unexciting,” Plumeri said. “This will show artifacts, baseballs and things you can see. But it’s more a living, breathing monument to what a man stood for, just as relevant today was it was then.”

Members of the Robinson family began their foundation a year after Robinson’s death in 1972 at the age of 53. They make it a point to attend all the ceremonies that honor him because there are still messages to deliver.

“That’s why I like the new statue of my father at Dodger Stadium,” Sharon Robinson said of the sculpture unveiled this month in Los Angeles. “My father is in the process of stealing, and it shows him taking a risk. If you want to succeed, you have to take a risk.”

Now there is going to be a museum for Jackie Robinson in New York, something of a financial risk. Groundbreaking, of a different kind.