I was as excited as most movie goers to see 42, the Jackie Robinson film about his stormy experience as the first African American to integrate major league baseball. But I'm sure my reason was very different from theirs. They wanted to learn about what Jackie the baseball icon went through during that turbulent period. I was there to see once again, if only on-screen, Jackie Robinson my friend.
I first met Jackie as a 13-year-old insecure kid at Grossinger's, the famous resort hotel in New York's Catskill Mountains owned by members of my family. Many well-known celebrities visited or performed at the hotel. Eddie Fisher was discovered by Eddie Cantor and married Debbie Reynolds there. Rocky Marciano trained for his heavyweight championship bouts at the hotel's airport. I couldn't have cared less. But in the late winter of 1951 when I was told that Jackie Robinson was coming to Grossinger's I was first in line begging to be introduced. He was told I was a good ping-pong player. He asked me to join him in a game three hours later. I didn't show up. I knew better than to trust a celebrity; they only said what sounded good at the moment. The phone in my room rang five minutes after the appointed time. "I thought we had a date. Did I misunderstand?" When we finished our first set (I still don't remember who won) he bought me an ice cream soda. "Why didn't you believe I'd be there?" I sheepishly murmured my explanation. Aren't you a bit young to be so cynical, he wanted to know. And then when he started to ask more questions about me something magical happened. For reasons I have yet to understand but made an incredible difference in my life, Jackie Robinson suggested we be friends. Jackie Robinson wanted to be my friend! I still, all these many years later, haven't quite gotten over it.
He and his family visited Grossinger's often and when he crisscrossed the country stealing bases and hitting home runs on behalf of the Brooklyn Dodgers we became pen pals. Every adolescent insecurity I went through he experienced vicariously. One day I was explaining to him how awful I felt because I wasn't a 'Grossinger' Grossinger. I was the daughter of a Grossinger cousin who had died when I was six months old and my mother, Karla, was the social director of the hotel but not an owner. I had the gall to say (and to this day I can't believe I really said this to Jackie Robinson!) "I don't know if you can understand what its like to be an outsider looking in!" To his ever loving credit he gently took my hand in his, looked down and gently smiled. "I think I do, Tania. I really think I do!'
This exchange came back so vividly as I watched the scenes in 42 that brought home the point more brutally than I could ever have imagined. Reading or hearing about abominable situations doesn't begin to do justice (in this case injustice) to seeing them played out in front of you on a large screen. When Ben Chapman, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies taunted him with the unprintable 'n' words I wanted to scream "Shut up! Shut up! You can't say that about my friend! I hate you!' and I found myself starting to wave a clenched fist.
I was never able to thank Jackie Robinson for everything he meant to me until very recently when I was asked to write an illustrated children's book about Jackie Robinson the man, not the baseball hero, titled Jackie and Me; A Very Special Friendship which tells part of our story. There is another side of Jackie Robinson I also want to share. Two years after I met him and was a student at Brandeis, there was a terrible fire at Grossinger's where many staff members died. Two days later I received a hand written letter that read:
I was so shocked about the tragedy and I can only imagine how terrible you must feel. I immediately interrupted spring training to write and tell you how much you are in my thoughts. At least we can thank God that there were other who were lucky. Tania, I hope nothing ever changes your ideas about God and his doing. I know how horrible it was and sometimes when disaster strikes near we want to question but, Tania dear, we must always understand. Please, for my sake, try.
This is the Jackie Robinson I hold in my heart.