By Chris Maza
SPRINGFIELD – Students at Van Sickle Middle School got a treat on Jan. 29 when the Boston Red Sox brought their annual program to teach children the legacy of Jackie Robinson to the school.
“The Red Sox organization has had this celebration of Jackie Robinson’s life for 12 years now,” Van Sickle Principal Cheryl DeSprit said. “Traditionally, it’s been in the Boston area and it was time for it to come west. Through the good graces of our congressman [Richard Neal] and the connections the Red Sox have to Western Massachusetts, they worked to have it come to Springfield. Our Superintendent of Schools [Daniel Warwick] was a former student here and he always remembers our auditorium.”
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Warwick and Neal were among the dignitaries joined by NESN’s Adam Pellerin, Red Sox poet laureate Dick Flavin, baseball historian Dr. Steve Schlein, and former Red Sox outfielder Tommy Harper on stage in the school’s auditorium to ensure that the memory of the man credited with breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball was maintained.
“I think that having the Red Sox organization come and have people who truly benefitted from the life and times of Jackie Robinson here brings it to life for [the students]; it’s not just on paper anymore – it’s a real man who had real struggles and real trials and influenced real people,” DeSprit said. “I think the more we bring those firsthand experiences to our kids, the more they see they can make a difference.”
Harper told Reminder Publications that it was increasingly important to honor Robinson’s memory as the number of those who saw him play dwindles and that is a challenge through all segments of the population.
“I know Major League Baseball athletes who don’t know much about Jackie Robinson and Curt Flood. They don’t know the history,” he said.
Neal said that while playing a game, Robinson was one of the first to achieve a breakthrough in racial equality in the United States.
“Before Rosa Parks got on that bus, there was Jackie Robinson; before Martin Luther King made that [‘I Have a Dream] speech, there was Jackie Robinson; before the Civil Rights Act, arguably the greatest piece of legislation passed in the 20th century, there was Jackie Robinson,” he said.
Speakers recounted the trials and tribulations that Robinson went through in his historic career, which included threats upon his life sent in letters to the Brooklyn Dodgers’ clubhouse and phone calls to his home.
Sarno told the crowd of students that the courage shown by Robinson was preceded by events within their own city and detailed the bravery of the Springfield American Legion Post 21 baseball team that had an opportunity to play for a national championship, but refused to play when informed that a black player on the team would not be allowed to compete.
Harper told the students that perseverance was the key to doing anything great.
“The message is perseverance to me; it’s overcoming adversity to keep going forward. When you have a goal, there’s going to be obstacles in your way and you have to overcome some things and always keep your goal in mind,” he said.
Harper, a black player who had a 15-year career in the major leagues from 1962 to 1976, including three seasons with the Red Sox in the early 70s when racial tensions were especially high, said the same obstacles faced him wherever he played.
“A black player in Boston was the same as being a black player in the country,” he said. “It was probably a little more out there in Boston because of the Red Sox’ reputation of being the last Major League team to integrate, but it was no different as a player. We just had to play.”
Now, Harper said, he’s proud that the United States is a place where the students could be whatever they wanted to be.
“You can be anything in this country. The opportunity is there,” he said. “Pedro Martinez always told me that as a kid he used to sit under that mango tree and all he could do is dream because he didn’t have 50 cents in his pocket. Now he’s probably going into the Hall of Fame next year. That’s what our country can do for you.”