“Heroes get remembered. But legends never die.” So says an apparition of Babe Ruth in The Sandlot.
Statues affirm their permanence. Capturing a ballplayer’s essence creates a bond with passersby who stop to absorb the player’s importance to the game and admire the sculptor’s handiwork framing a moment. Ruth’s likeness adorns Oriole Park as a reminder of the Sultan of Swat’s Baltimore roots; Comerica Park boasts statues of six legendary Tigers; and Bob Feller’s statue at Progressive Field represents pride for Clevelanders. Two statues of Ted Williams stand outside Fenway Park.
But it will be challenging to find a player with more statues than Jackie Robinson.
At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, Robinson’s football career at UCLA enjoys prominence through a statue of the four-sport varsity athlete in a running pose carrying a football.1 When visitors enter the foyer at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, three statues greet them – Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, and Robinson. At Brooklyn’s MCU Park, a statue of Pee Wee Reese with an arm around Jackie Robinson commemorates a moment in Cincinnati when the Kentucky-born shortstop showed the crowd – only 100 miles from his hometown of Louisville – that he accepted Robinson as his teammate and friend.
Dodger Stadium’s Robinson statue shows the legend as he’s sliding into a base. Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida, has a statue marking the location of the Hall of Famer’s first spring-training game, in 1946. Near Olympic Park in Montreal, a statue of Robinson giving a baseball to two young boys in Montreal highlights his connection to the city – he played for the Montreal Royals in 1946 season after a year with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.
Another statue of Number 42 stands in Jersey City, the metropolis owning the distinction of being the location of Robinson’s first official game in what was then known as “Organized Baseball.” On April 18, 1946, the Royals played the Jersey City Giants at Roosevelt Stadium; Robinson went 4-for-5 with a three-run homer and four RBIs. He proved to be a highly significant factor in the Royals’ championship season that ended with a victory over the Louisville Colonels in the Little World Series.
Roosevelt Stadium has been gone since the mid-1980s, when it was demolished for a housing complex of townhouses, condominiums, and rental apartments. Robinson’s nexus to Jersey City inspired the power brokers and decision makers to erect a statue commemorating the icon who won the 1947 Rookie of the Year Award, batted .311 in a 10-year major-league career, played on six National League pennant winners and one World Series championship squad, and changed baseball history as the first Black player in the twentieth century. On February 25, 1998, the statue sculpted by Susan Wagner was unveiled. “When (people) drive down the Boulevard, when they see Jackie Robinson reaching for the stars, then all of us want to claim him for our own,” praised Mayor Bret Schundler.2
Wagner’s statue weighs 2,500 pounds and cost $155,000. It stands next to the Journal Square station of the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) train system.3 For a basis, Wagner got an assist from Robinson’s widow, Rachel. “She sent me five photographs,” said the sculptor. “I chose it because it showed a victory. I love sculpting and what he represented. I always admire people like that and to know what he went through, and persevered is amazing.”4
Viewing the Jersey City statue through the paradigm of legendary architect Jean Labatut offers an expanded perspective of its meaning as a work of art, not just a depiction of a great ballplayer with historical, civic, and geographical significance. Labatut’s 1952 essay, “Monuments and Memorials,” outlines the impact that sculptors, architects, and artists may have on the culture through their depictions: “Memorials and monuments, landmarks and signposts for remembrance and for warning, are an integral part of the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual human trail. There always will be memorials to express not only what has happened but also our aspirations, to show the journey already accomplished and to point forward in some definite direction. There always will be monuments giving precise information as to place and time. Both are inevitable footprints of an era.”5
Indeed, Robinson’s presence in Journal Square conveys the basic information about the game on April 18, 1946, and how it marked the first step toward integrating major-league baseball. But Wagner’s work doesn’t merely honor historical noteworthiness. It is, as Labatut theorizes, a symbol of aspiration. Robinson represented hope that baseball – and, in turn, America – could live up to its moniker as the Land of Opportunity. A quarter-century after he made his major-league debut in 1947, the national pastime still had not done so in Robinson’s opinion. Before Game Two of the 1972 A’s-Reds World Series, he told the crowd at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati that he wanted to see a Black manager. That didn’t happen until Frank Robinson managed the Cleveland Indians in 1975.
Labatut also emphasizes art as education. “Words, customs, methods of reasoning, and techniques may vary, but art is the easiest channel for common understanding; through the arts we can become easily acquainted with other times and other peoples and with other people in our own time,” explains the architect.6
Wagner’s statue of Robinson jumping with arms outstretched is a dynamic representation of Robinson’s athleticism. It evokes not only a moment but also a bygone era when Roosevelt Stadium was in its prime. An Art Deco project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression in the 1940s, the ballpark underlined Jersey City’s importance as a cultural, economic, and political force. When the Jersey City Giants left after the 1950 season, there were occasional sparks of life for the edifice. But the subsequent baseball tenants didn’t last too long.7
Robinson’s quote adorns the statue: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Neither is art. In Robinson’s case, the works of Wagner and her fellow sculptors affect, educate, and inspire those who want to know more about an American icon who withstood ignorance, championed tolerance, and transformed baseball.
DAVID KRELL is the chair of SABR’s Elysian Fields Chapter in Northern New Jersey and the Spring Training Research Committee. He wrote 1962: Baseball and America in the Time of JFK and Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture. SABR twice granted him honorable mention for the Ron Gabriel Award. Additionally, David edited the anthologies The New York Mets in Popular Culture and The New York Yankees in Popular Culture. He often contributes to SABR’s Games Project, Biography Project, and Ballparks Project in addition to speaking at SABR conferences and the Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.
1 Robinson lettered in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field.
2 Michael Y. Park, “Robinson Statue Is Unveiled,” Jersey Journal (Jersey City), February 26, 1998: 1.