"When you can teach them that it started with Jackie Robinson and it was a matter of character and courage, more than athletic ability, then you may have the opportunity to help influence their life or at a minimum you make sure they know who Jackie Robinson was and why he has a role in their lives."
Among the kids in attendance, 34 came from the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton. They were given a Jackie Robinson T-shirt with his No. 42 on it and a copy of artist Kadir Nelson's book, "We Are The Ship," that has 47 of his paintings and stories about the Negro Leagues and its history. Everyone was treated to a traditional baseball lunch of hamburgers, Dodger Dogs, cracker jacks and popcorn while listening to speeches from Steinberg, Nelson and three former Dodgers who knew Robinson well: Lou Johnson, Tommy Davis and Robinson's close friend and teammate, Don Newcombe.
"As long as God allows me to be on this earth I'll do whatever I can to promote some remembrance of this great American named Jackie Robinson," said Newcombe, who met Robinson when they playing in the Negro Leagues in 1945 and remained friends until Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972 at the age of 53. "I'll never forget what he did for me and my career and my life. And I don't think he should ever be forgotten, and the Dodgers are always in the right frame of mind to do something to remember Jackie."
"If it weren't for Jackie, I wouldn't be here," said Davis, the two-time National League batting champion for the Dodgers in the 1960s. "He was the first and that gave me a lot of inspiration and I was about to sign with the Yankees in 1957 and two days before I was going to sign with them Jackie called me at my house and when I heard his voice, that was it. I was about to sign with the Yankees; instead, I signed that afternoon with the Dodgers."
With black history month across the nation beginning, the historical significance of what happened 11 days earlier with swearing in of President Obama is still fresh on people's minds, with many of the young people in attendance putting their No. 42 shirts over the Barack Obama shirts they wore to the stadium. Newcombe, who had been invited to the inaugural but chose to to stay in Los Angeles to watch it at home with his wife, Karen, sees the legacy Robinson began and continues with the new president.
"The way things are going on in our country now, with our new President Obama, I think Jackie needs to be in that whole process," said Newcombe. "Jackie was doing it before everybody else, Martin Luther King and all the rest of them. Martin even sat at my dinner table, 28 days before he died, and he said 'Don, you'll never know how easy you, Jackie and Roy [Campanella] made it for me to be able to do my job.' "
"I think the No. 42 comes to mean something," said Steinberg. "Just as I think we are going to see with President Obama, the No. 44 is going to be symbolic as well. And they capture in simple numerical forms, stories, that are worth telling, that are necessary to tell, that can be summarized in just a couple of numbers."
Steinberg, who said the Dodgers will also go all out on April 15 in celebrating Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium, related a story that happened last February when a delegation of Chinese baseball officials met with Dodgers chairman Frank McCourt at Dodger Stadium in preparation for the Dodgers and Padres' historic trip to Beijing to play exhibition games last March. McCourt took the delegation down to the hallway leading to the clubhouse where all the retired Dodgers numbers reside. One of the delegation members walked up to Robinson's jersey and said, "This is Jackie Robinson's number." McCourt asked him how he knew that. The delegation member said he had read a book about Robinson when he was a boy in China and it taught him that baseball was open to everyone.
"Here was a man in 2008 at Dodger Stadium, from Tianjin, China, and his motivation for baseball, his love for baseball, started with Jackie Robinson," said Steinberg. "To me that tells us what a continued source of inspiration he is throughout the world and with enormous pride it was Branch Rickey and the Dodgers who made that pioneering step."
Said Davis: "I work to honor this man every day. Not just this day, but every day is Jackie Robinson's birthday in my book."