Black Heritage Day at Nationals Park honors Jackie Robinson

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., waves after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch for Jackie Robinson Day before a baseball game between the Washington Nationals and the Colorado Rockies at Nationals Park, Sunday, April 15, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

It was an emotional, historic moment.

"I feel more than lucky," said John Lewis, the civil rights icon and Georgia congressman. "I feel very blessed be here on Jackie Robinson Day."

Lewis's task was to throw the first pitch at Nationals Park on its Black Heritage Day, which also was the 71st anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

Robinson was the first African-American to play in the major leagues.

"I'm a little nervous," Lewis confided to a reporter. "I want to be able to get the ball to the catcher. If I fail to do that, I think I would let Jackie Robinson and hundreds of thousands of others down."

But the 78-year old congressman did just fine, with a short overhand throw that landed squarely in the glove of Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

The two men embraced afterward.

"The marriage of baseball opportunity, education, equality is just phenomenal," Jackie Robinson Foundation member Thomas Bennett said with a smile.

The group provides scholarship funds, mentoring, and leadership opportunities.

"I feel very honored and blessed as we celebrate the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson, breaking down the color barrier and changing baseball as we know it," Bennett said.

The anniversary proved to be especially poignant, falling on Emancipation Day Weekend in the District.

"He was quoted as saying 'life isn't important except for the impact it has on other lives,'" said Alicia Wallace, a foundation member. "Let the crowd know that Jackie Robinson's legacy lives on, and it's a really exciting time."

It wasn't perfect baseball weather, but nobody seemed to mind.

A historic day, but also one of unity.

Every major league ballplayer playing Sunday was wearing No. 42, Robinson's number that was later retired leaguewide, for the annual Jackie Robinson Day.

"I guess the grace and the class which he did it is what's really like important about it," Brenna Muldrow said.

The 23-year old, from Arlington, who attended Sunday's game specifically because Robinson was being honored, says he not only broke down barriers, but also paved the way for young activists today.

"It's not that young kids don't struggle with those same kind of issues," Muldrow said. "They may not understand who he is, but I think when you're looking at other young activists, I think the same spirit is there."

"It's an honor to have him in the sport," said Jacob Harris of Arlington, who admits that baseball is not his first love.

Still, he believes that Robinson was special.

"I'm a big soccer fan myself," Harris said. "That's a world-wide sport, trying to trend towards that era of having equality and equal in all sports."

Lewis – a Freedom Fighter, friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, and congressman – paid quiet tribute during the celebration of a life that transcended sport.

"He changed America, to set us on a path to lay down the burden of race," Lewis said. "I think our country is a much better country because Jackie Robinson passed this way."

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off