In New York, perhaps more than any other city, baseball heroes of yore are highly revered.
And one name that usually stands out above the rest is that of Jackie Robinson, the pioneering second baseman who became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Robinson’s stature throughout the city and the borough of Queens was reaffirmed when the former Interborough Parkway, constructed in 1935, was renamed for him in 1997.
Though born in Georgia and raised on the West Coast, Robinson became an icon in the city due to his time playing with the Dodgers.
After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles where he starred in both baseball and track, Robinson became the athletic director for a small college in Texas before signing with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League.
He was shortly thereafter discovered by Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, and signed to a contract.
Robinson was assigned to a minor league affiliate of the team, the Montreal Royals, in 1946. He finally got the call up to the major leagues six days before the start of the 1947 season.
Robinson faced an unprecedented atmosphere as the first player to break baseball’s color barrier. Many fans, along with players and managers on opposing teams, hurled racial epithets at him. The St. Louis Cardinals even threatened to strike if Robinson was not removed from the league.
But the fans in Brooklyn supported Robinson wholeheartedly, and eventually his talent and character made him a favorite throughout the country.
In addition to being a civil rights pioneer, Robinson was a star ballplayer. He made six all-star teams and was named the National League most valuable player in 1949.
Playing before Queens got its Mets when many residents were Dodger fans, Robinson was loved here as well as Brooklyn.
In fact, Robinson was a resident of St. Albans for many years during his playing days with the Dodgers, living near his teammate Roy Campanella.
Today in Queens, there are many structures named for the baseball pioneer, including the Jackie Robinson Rotunda in Citi Field, the home of the Mets, and PS 15 in Springfield Gardens. But the most widely known is probably the Jackie Robinson Parkway, which runs through much of central Queens.
The five-mile-long highway stretches from its east terminus in Kew Gardens west to the Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York. Along the way it passes through Cypress Hills Cemetery, where Robinson is buried. When it was finished in 1935, the parkway provided a continuous link from Brooklyn to Eastern Long Island via the recently completed Grand Central Parkway.
The roadway offers one of the more scenic drives in the city, passing through parks and cemeteries for much of its length.
As the city Department of Transportation puts it, the parkway’s design “reflects an era of leisurely Sunday drives.”
Though it’s a worthy tribute, residents of Queens have never needed the renaming of parkways to be reminded of the impact Jackie Robinson had both here and beyond.