Baseball steps to plate for Robinson

April 16, 2008|By GREGORY KANE

Gary Schueller was exactly 24 minutes from burning the midnight oil when he sent me this e-mail at 11:36 p.m. Monday:

" ... [T]oday Major League Baseball announced that as part of a $1.2 million gift to the Jackie Robinson Foundation all teams (including the Baltimore Orioles) will be sponsoring a Jackie Robinson Foundation scholar this fall."

Schueller has good reason to be excited: He's the communications manager for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded 35 years ago by the baseball great's widow, Rachel Robinson. The JRF awards four-year, $30,000 scholarships to, in Schueller's words, "academically gifted minority students who would not otherwise be able to attend college."

But the words of an O's official suggests that the ball hasn't reached the plate yet.

Orioles' spokesman Greg Bader said that while the club's sponsorship of a Jackie Robinson Foundation scholarship recipient is something the team is interested in, plans have not been finalized and that he is not aware that an Orioles' sponsorship has been confirmed.

Della Britton Baeza, president and chief executive officer of the JRF, said that there are over 250 JRF scholars at 93 colleges and universities in 30 states. Over the years, Baeza said, the JRF has funded college education for 1,200 students to the tune of $16 million. And 97 percent of JRF scholars graduate.

"We'll be supporting more in the future," Baeza said.

That money from MLB - which still owes a huge debt to Jackie Robinson - will be a big help. Can you imagine a better way to honor Jackie Robinson's legacy than supporting college students?

Every April 15, MLB honors Jackie Robinson as the man who integrated baseball. That description gives short shrift to Jackie, who did so much more. He was a civil-rights giant who grabbed Uncle Sam by the throat and dragged him kicking, screaming and whining into the 20th century. After he retired from baseball, Jackie was as ferocious a fighter for civil rights as he was a baseball player. For a while he was a columnist for the New York Amsterdam News and believe me, he wielded a pen as skillfully as he wielded a bat.

Baeza grew up in 1950s Pittsburgh as a Pirates and a Jackie Robinson fan. As the head of the JRF, perhaps it's not surprising that she knows Jackie attended college himself before he had to drop out after his junior year to help support his family. A foundation that awards college scholarships named for Jackie Robinson seems more than appropriate. But Baeza said the JRF does more than hand out the dollars.

"We give the students adult and peer mentors," Baeza said. "We provide them with career guidance, leadership training and practical life skills."

Baeza didn't elaborate on what "practical life skills" are taught to JRF scholars, but she did give an example.

"None of our scholars are going to have that mortgage crisis," Baeza said. "They're going to know what they're doing."

Those mentors are assigned to JRF scholars for all four years they're in college. Gregg Gonsalves was a JRF scholar from 1985 to 1989. Today he's a manager and director at the investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs and mentoring JRF scholar Sayam Ibrahim. (Gonsalves said that Goldman Sachs sponsors about eight JRF scholars.)

Ibrahim was one of four JRF scholars honored during a ceremony before last night's Orioles-Blue Jays game at Camden Yards. He hails from Somerset, N.J., and, after he graduates with a major in finance from Georgetown University in June, will begin working full time for Goldman Sachs as a credit trader.

While a sophomore at Georgetown, Ibrahim and some of his fellow students began a program of their own, mentoring 25 elementary and middle-school youngsters from Northeast and Southeast Washington, D.C. Since that program started, Ibrahim and his Hoya cohorts have brought children to the campus for, among other things, Halloween parties and dinners.

"It gives them a firsthand knowledge of what college opportunities are like and what's really out there," Ibrahim said. "A lot of these kids don't have parents or a father figure in their lives. We mentor them and try to fill that gap."

Ibrahim is the son of immigrants: an Ethiopian father and a mother from the Dominican Republic. Once he gets settled into his routine at Goldman Sachs, Ibrahim wants to start a string of international charter schools. You'd be right on the money if you guessed that he wants one of them to be in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

It's stories like that of Ibrahim's - and Jackie Robinson's legacy - that inspired Baeza to take the job as head of the JRF. A lawyer and businesswoman, Baeza said she came out of semiretirement after Rachel Robinson personally selected her for the job.

"This is a culmination of my life's work," Baeza said. "Our goal is to create a pipeline of young people to fully integrate all aspects of American society."

And isn't that what Jackie Robinson fought for his entire life, on the baseball field and off?

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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