August 19, 2019

For Jackie Robinson’s Centennial, a Display of Rarely Seen Photographs

For Jackie Robinson’s Centennial, a Display of Rarely Seen Photographs

[George Vecsey: How Jackie Robinson Changed the Game]

Robinson wasn’t the first black player in the history of Major League Baseball. That distinction belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker, a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association in 1884. He only played one season because of an injury and soon after, black players were banned. But Robinson’s legacy is unmatched: He not only inspired generations of Americans to pursue baseball but also helped black football and basketball players gain acceptance in their leagues while devoting himself to the civil rights movement before his death at the age of 53 in 1972.

Robinson’s special relationship with Look magazine is apparent in the show. He wrote three articles in 1955, including one called “Now I Know Why They Boo Me,” which can be read here. Robinson also announced his retirement through Look, instead of at a news conference, an unusual move at the time. The magazine donated its New York archives to the museum in the 1950s, and for years the negatives and contact prints were buried in its basement. Over the last year, Sean Corcoran and Susan Gail Johnson, the exhibition’s curators, combed through hundreds of negatives before finally picking the ones that would be on view for this small yet powerful show.

Robinson is seen at home with his wife, Rachel Robinson, and his son, Jackie Jr. Many of these stills are from 1949, two years after he had entered the major leagues. Another photograph shows Robinson typing, an indication of how much Robinson wanted to be in charge of his own story. The Robinsons married in 1946, just before spring training in Florida, and that same year, Rachel gave birth to Jackie Robinson Jr. He later died in a car crash in 1971 at 24.

“It was important to show him as a human being more than just this towering figure in baseball history,” Mr. Corcoran said. “To ground him as a human being with a personal story.”

The exhibition also shows Robinson late in his career, in 1953, seemingly having positive interactions with his teammates, as well as some with Robinson shirtless, which would not have been published at the time. In one of the shirtless photos, Robinson is seen talking to a white teammate in the clubhouse. Museum officials believe he is Carl Furillo, an all-star right fielder.

“His guard is down. This is a completely intimate moment,” Mr. Corcoran said in an interview. “You don’t know what they’re saying, but they’re having some sort of serious but open discussion with each other.”

These photos show Robinson perhaps a bit more at ease than he was as a rookie, partially because at this point, he had shown himself to be one of the best players in the league, which resulted in him being more accepted in the locker room.

Robinson was an exceptional player. But with that came resentment from opposing teams. Opposing pitchers often threw at his body. (He was hit 72 times in his career.) In his second full year, he led the National League in hit-by-pitches with seven. In seven of his 10 seasons, he was among the top five players hit by opposing pitchers.

Robinson was also a speedster. He led the National League twice in stolen bases — and actually stole home 19 times, which today would be unheard-of.

In the Dugout With Jackie Robinson

Through Sept. 15 at the Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-534-1672,

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