By Charles Hallman
A once-in-a-lifetime encounter turned into a lifelong friendship between a young Jewish boy and a Black baseball player.
“I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. My dad loves the [Brooklyn] Dodgers because they gave Jackie [Robinson] the opportunity to play baseball,” recalled Ron Rabinovitz. “So one day he said, ‘How would like to meet him some day?’ So unbeknown to me, he wrote Jackie a letter…and he wrote back and said the next time the club is in Milwaukee to play the Braves, he’ll love to meet me.”
The young Rabinovitz met Robinson outside the team’s dressing room “with the other kids,” he continued. “Do you remember me?” asked Rabinovitz. “Yes, I remember your dad’s letter,” answered Robinson.
“From that time on, we became the very dearest of friends,” said Rabinovitz proudly. “Through my growing-up years, I write letters to him and he writes back to me in longhand. He always signs, ‘Always, Jackie’” at the end of each letter, he noted.
He displayed the letters, kept in pristine condition, to young boys and girls during a half-day youth baseball and softball clinic last month at North High School, along with many black and white photographs of the young Rabinovitz and his baseball hero. “I just love this picture here,” as he points to his favorite, “of me looking up at my hero.
“He was just a nice guy. At the time, I loved him because he was helping my Dodgers win the pennant. But later on, I realize how much more than baseball he was. There was no Civil Rights Movement; there was no Martin Luther King [Jr.]; there was no Rosa Parks — it was Jackie alone. He changed the world,” said Rabinovitz.
Never did he think an unlikely friendship would grow from just shaking his hand. “The biggest question I often ask — why me?” admitted Rabinovitz. “We were so different — I was White, he was Black. I was a kid and he was an adult. I was Jewish and he was Christian. I was from a little town in the Midwest, and he was out East. And yet there was this bond of love and friendship.”
Robinson once confided in him after a game in which he struggled. “‘You know Ronnie, my legs are gone. I am going to tell you a secret that no one else knows except my own family. Next year is going to be my last year in baseball.’ When he retired, I cried because I thought I would never see him again. Why would he want to come back to Wisconsin…?”
But Robinson did return on several occasions. He and Rabinovitz’s dad also became close friends: “My dad was a Democratic committeeman in the state of Wisconsin, and Jackie was a Republican. They would have these little arguments, but they loved each other.”
“We’ve had many dinners together in Milwaukee,” including once on his 10th birthday, continued Rabinovitz, who has lived in the Twin Cities since 1966. The two remained pen pals well after Robinson’s retirement as a player.
“He always was interested in my schooling,” said Rabinovitz. “It was very important to him that I stayed in school. He always encouraged me. We used to talk about baseball, about life, about his kids, about my kids.”
He also had Robinson’s unlisted phone number: “I used to call him on occasions but never was a pest. [When] he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, I called him at home. He chuckled and said, ‘I thought I’d hear from you.’ He was so happy to hear from me.”
The two continued their friendship until Robinson’s death in 1972.
Rabinovitz has been on national television and in USA Today since he first contacted Major League Baseball in 1987 about his letters from Robinson. He regularly speaks at schools about the ballplayer he became close friends with.
“It’s just an honor to carry this memory,” said Rabinovitz. When he finally met Mrs. Rachel Robinson in person at the Metrodome in 1997 — the 50th anniversary of her husband Jackie’s major league debut — she told him, “Jackie loved you so much.”
“It was emotional,” he recalled.
Retired professor Mahmoud El-Kati once told a story about a older man who lived in his neighborhood where he grew up, and when he learned that the man as a youngster got to shake Fredrick Douglass’ hand at an event, he always shook his hand “because I shook the hand that shook the hand of Fredrick Douglass” to maintain that link of history.
As a result, this reporter shook Rabinovitz’s hand — the hand that shook Jackie Robinson’s hand — as a friend.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
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