The mystery of Jackie Robinson’s speech

It was 1949, the year Jackie Robinson would bat .342 for the Brooklyn Dodgers and receive the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award, just 31 months after becoming the first player to break the color barrier in modern professional baseball.

But on Feb. 14, before the season started, before the crowds poured into Ebbets Field, Robinson spoke to the Sociology Society at City College in New York.

The New York Times is trying to figure out why.

A photograph unpublished until this month documents the moment, with the students leaning forward to hear him speak. But what was he discussing? Information with the photo offers only a hint, saying that Robinson was speaking about “his work with Harlem boys’ groups.”

Robinson coached children at the YMCA in Harlem a year earlier, to help, as he put it, “keep them off the streets.” And it is easy to imagine how his successes and struggles would have resonated with African-American boys and teenagers at a time when racial discrimination was rife.

“I had to fight hard against loneliness, abuse and the knowledge that any mistake I made would be magnified because I was the only black man out there,” Robinson wrote in his memoir, “I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson,” describing those early years with the Dodgers.

But The New York Times did not publish an article about the ballplayer’s visit to City College that day. So it has turned to readers for help.

Since the photo was published online, several readers (from Brooklyn, San Francisco and elsewhere) pointed to City College’s undergraduate newspaper, The Campus, which published an article about Robinson’s speech to students on Feb. 18, 1949.

The article said that Robinson had spent five months, during his offseason, working with underprivileged children at the YMCA in Harlem.

“I’ve learned more from the kids than they’ve learned from me,” said Robinson, who described his work to members of the Sociology Society, adding that it had given him “great satisfaction.”

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