By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
It’s safe to assume that most commuters passing through the Journal Square PATH Station never realize the larger-than-life statue of baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson outside the station is there because Robinson made his professional debut against the Jersey City Giants in 1946, the first African-American ballplayer to play in a AAA minor league game. During that game, he crushed a home run over the wall of what was then Roosevelt Stadium, a short distance from where PATH Plaza is located today.
The statue, created by sculptor Susan Wagner, was dedicated on February 26, 1998 by the Jackie Robinson Foundation, in partnership with the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, the city of Jersey City, the New Jersey Sports History Commission, and many others. Hugh McCann, the current Director of World Trade Center Operations, was Deputy Director of PATH that year. He still recalls the power of the ceremony and how incredible it was to meet Jackie’s wife Rachel and other members of his family.
“Whenever I’m at Journal Square and see the statue, I can’t help but reflect on the incredible American history enshrined there,” said McCann, who grew up a block away from Yankee Stadium.
The Port Authority provided the land and the pedestal to support the statue. Lew Eisenberg, former chairman of the Port Authority Board of Commissioners and a former Goldman Sachs executive, was one of the biggest proponents of the tribute, with his family’s foundation contributing funds for its construction. The statue continues to be a reminder of the groundbreaking changes Robinson brought about in America with his glove and his bat.
The statue features Robinson with his catching hand gloved and both arms outstretched. It is 14 feet tall, and consists of quarter inch thick bronze, 1,500 lbs. of bronze reinforced with 1,000 lbs. of stainless steel armature and mounting plate. The inscription at its foot quotes the player himself: A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
When Robinson took the field for the first time for the Montreal Royals against the Jersey City Giants, he was booed, heckled and called bad names; some fans threw objects at him from the stands. That day, he had four hits, including a three-run homer, with four RBIs, four runs scored and two stolen bases. A year later, he broke the color line in Major League Baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.
“Few people realize that day in Jersey City was the beginning of the integration of sports, and one of the first major steps in the American civil rights movement, clearing the way for an army of players like me, of every nationality and ethnicity,” said Fred Valentine, who is familiar with Robinson’s statue and his connection to Jersey City.
Valentine, currently the Vice President of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, (Brooks Robinson is President), was among the wave of black ballplayers accepted in the majors after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Valentine played in the major leagues for seven years and has been associated with professional baseball for nearly a half-century.
“It was Jackie who opened it up and led the way for all of us,” Valentine told Portfolio recently, “Most teams hadn’t fully accepted integration yet, so basically I went through the same things that Jackie went through. He was in the National League and I was in the American League. I played in the minor leagues in the segregated south, and it was definitely tough at first. Every day I used to think about what Jackie had gone through before me and what he endured, not only in baseball but in life.”