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By PAMELA HUEY
MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE
On April 15 every year, players from the American and National leagues — all wearing No. 42 — line up on the baselines as a tribute to one of the greatest players of all time, Jack Roosevelt Robinson. It didn’t happen this year because baseball has been sidelined due to the pandemic.
But Jackie was not forgotten, especially in the heart and mind of Ron Rabinovitz, of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, who has spent his life honoring the legacy of the player who broke Major League Baseball’s color line on April 15, 1947.
Young Ronnie of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, became the unlikely pen pal and then friend of the Brooklyn Dodgers infielder in the 1950s. In later years, Rabinovitz has spoken to classes across the Twin Cities and at Target Field, where schoolchildren take tours of the Twins’ home field. He was featured in an MLB documentary about No. 42.
Now, Rabinovitz has co-written a children’s book, “Always Jackie,” just the way Robinson signed his letters to Ronnie. “I put down notes about my life and my history with Jackie with the intention of writing a children’s book,” the 74-year-old retired salesman said. “I don’t want anyone to ever forget him.”
The result is a beautifully written and illustrated book published by Creative Editions and co-authored by J. Patrick Lewis, with drawings by John Thompson. Publisher Tom Peterson explained the book’s attraction this way: “The message of Ron’s story to children is no different from the story’s message to adults. Friendship supersedes race, religion, age and celebrity. If our hearts and minds are open to the blessing, lasting friendship can be found in the most unlikeliest of places, between people who at first glance seemingly have nothing in common but in fact share the most important of characteristics — a genuine care and concern for others.”
The friendship started with a letter from Ronnie’s lawyer father, David Rabinowitz, to Robinson, who wrote back. Young Ronnie wrote, too, and would get letters in return and even an invitation to meet Robinson the next time the Dodgers played the Braves in Milwaukee. That incredible meeting in September 1955 included a visit to the locker room at Milwaukee County Stadium, where he met other Dodger greats: Duke Snider, PeeWee Reese, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges and even rookie pitcher Sandy Koufax, who all signed a baseball for him.
The new book, which Amazon named among the best nonfiction children’s books for January 2020, takes note of that momentous occasion and others. One entry reads, “What young man can say the other guest of honor at his 10th birthday party was the great Jackie Robinson? Or that he was taken by the hand inside a major league dressing room by the man himself to get a baseball signed by every Brooklyn Dodger?”
The book describes simply for its young readers the daunting challenge Robinson faced: “Jackie Robinson, a four-sport athlete, endured a lifetime of prejudice, yet he continued to play the game he loved most amid arrows of insults in stadiums of bigotry.”
Robinson died in 1972 at 53, but his widow, Rachel Robinson, 97, also keeps Jackie’s story alive. In 1997, when the Twins retired No. 42, Rabinovitz finally got to meet her. “You’re Ron Rabinovitz? Lord have mercy,” she exclaimed as she hugged him. They sat together for several innings watching the game.
It was in a letter to Rachel at the time of Robinson’s death that Rabinovitz expressed how her husband had changed his life.
“I learned from Jackie the true meaning of being a man,” he wrote. “I learned how cruel and full of hate some people are to others. And probably most important of all, I learned never to back down on a cause you truly believe in, no matter what the odds against you might be. These are important things for a boy to know while growing up, and I will always cherish those memories and recall the beauty of a friendship between a man and a boy.”