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Robinson's legacy enhanced by sculpture

Brooklyn monument sets greater example with its message
The statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese in Brooklyn was dedicated in November 2005. (Brooklyn Cyclones)
@Gerard_Gilberto
January 31, 2022

After his promotion to High-A Brooklyn in August, Mets prospect Jaylen Palmer found a new addition to his pregame routine. Approaching the main entrance of the Cyclones’ Maimonides Park sits a monument depicting a “simple gesture [that] challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.” That sculpture immortalizes the

After his promotion to High-A Brooklyn in August, Mets prospect Jaylen Palmer found a new addition to his pregame routine.

Approaching the main entrance of the Cyclones’ Maimonides Park sits a monument depicting a “simple gesture [that] challenged prejudice and created a powerful and enduring friendship.”

That sculpture immortalizes the moment when Jackie Robinson, playing in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, got a hand from Pee Wee Reese. Legend has it that the veteran Reese left his shortstop position to put his arm around Robinson at first base, letting the first African-American Major Leaguer and the hostile crowd at Crosley Field in Cincinnati know he had the support of his teammate.

Palmer, the only Black player on Brooklyn’s roster by the end of the last year, passed the monument before every home game. He made sure to take the time to stop and appreciate history.

“I definitely stay there for probably like a good minute, minute-and-a-half just pretty much thanking him for all the sacrifices he has done for me in order for me to have the confidence to play today,” Palmer said. “There was definitely some inspiration in seeing that statue everyday before you go into the stadium.”

The 21-year-old grew up in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighborhood just a few blocks south of the historic Jackie Robinson House on Tilden Avenue in Flatbush. Palmer considered it an honor and said he was living out every kid from New York’s dream when he was drafted by the hometown Mets in the 22nd round in 2018.

He attended Holy Cross High School in Flushing, Queens, just a short trip from Citi Field. And he was at the ballpark to see the Mets fall short against the Orioles the day before he was drafted. But after two years in Rookie ball, a season lost to the pandemic and a strong first half of 2021 with Low-A St. Lucie, it was time to come home again.

“Obviously, my parents came to every home game. They didn't miss one,” Palmer said. “Just having your close friends and family in the stands rooting for you, you can always tell by their voices, but just knowing that they're there. That definitely was a big confidence booster for me. Especially for the guys. The guys that are not from New York, obviously. Showing them around when I got here was pretty dope. I kind of felt like a veteran, almost. Just showing them around and where I grew up.”

Part of his tour of New York for his teammates included walks across the Brooklyn Bridge, shopping their way through SoHo in Manhattan and anywhere that provided a view of the bright lights for an out-of-towner. But there was already plenty to see in the Cyclones’ backyard.

The original Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, the boardwalk and Luna Park with the actual Cyclone roller coaster are products of old New York and the Coney Island that’s been a tourist destination for nearly a century. Even William Behrends, the North Carolina-based sculptor of the Robinson and Reese statue, spent time in the area during his youth.

“It's a very different place now. Amazingly different,” Behrends said in a phone interview last week.

Behrends is a renowned sculptor who has built many sports and baseball statues all over the country. In addition to Brooklyn, his work can be found in places like Oracle Park in San Francisco, Petco Park in San Diego and the National Baseball Hall of Fame. His first baseball statue was a Willie Mays piece -- the first of five of his creations still standing in San Francisco. That was in 2000, when the ballpark was known as Pac Bell Park.

In January 2001, shortly after the Mays statue was erected, the City of New York started a commission to find a sculptor to make a statue for the new Minor League club in Brooklyn. The commission was made up of the families of Robinson and Reese, former Dodgers players, Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office, baseball writers, fans and local business owners. When it began taking submissions from six finalists for the job, the commission already had the image for the sculpture in mind.

“We took that as an image to start with, but the whole sculpture and the setting was meant to accomplish more,” Behrends said. “It was meant to sort of educate the viewer about the significance of that moment. About the racial atmosphere at the time. And to try to portray why that was such an important moment.”

The 2013 Brooklyn squad takes a team photo in front of the statue. Brooklyn Cyclones

The events of 9/11 put the project on temporary hold. Behrends remembers meeting with the commission at City Hall that morning in 2001. But when the project was revived under the Michael Bloomberg administration in 2003, Behrends’ design was unanimously selected by the commission.

The final design for the piece includes a plaque on the front with a brief explanation of the events at Crosley Field and a quick synopsis of Robinson and Reese’s lives and careers. Behrends’ original design was much different.

The initial plan was to scatter 42 granite paving stones along the base of the bronze statue. On those stones would be information describing the world in 1947 and the context of the significance of the moment between Robinson and Reese.

“I took this approach in my design because, as this event took place many years ago and as the social and racial conditions of that time can only be dimly remembered by the oldest of our citizens, the most important part of this monument would be that which allowed every viewer the opportunity to truly understand it -- to imagine living it,” Behrends wrote in a letter to a high school student in Brooklyn in 2016. “The paver inscriptions included such information as the names of Negro League players who were never allowed to play in the major leagues but were later elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (among them was Josh Gibson, who hit over 870 home runs in his career and who died less than three months before Robinson entered the majors); and the fact that when Pee Wee Reese met Jackie Robinson for the first time in the Dodger clubhouse, it was the first time he had shaken a black man’s hand. One of the pavers was even to include a replica of the scrawled note that Robinson received just before that day’s game saying that if he attempted to enter the ball game, he would be killed.”

The New York City Arts Commission overruled the monument commission’s approval of the design. Only some of that information was included in the plaque on the final product.

The statue was finally dedicated after the 2005 season. It has since endured superstorm Sandy in 2012 and was vandalized with hate speech in 2013.

From Dodger Stadium to Daytona to Jersey City, statues of Robinson are displayed all over the country. His legacy sets an example for the greater population. But there’s still plenty that can strike a personal chord, especially for someone like Palmer.

“You’re walking past a guy that is the reason why you're playing today,” Palmer recalled. “Just standing there for a minute. Just idolizing history right there and what's in front of you.”

Gerard Gilberto is a reporter for MiLB.com.