FEATURE

A League of Her Own

Sharon Robinson '76NRS delivers on her father's legacy.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2017
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Numbers speak. They tell a story. Remember baseball cards? Kids could recite a player’s stats by heart. Those numbers added up to something — the sum of one’s skill and effort. Take Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers infielder who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947: 125 runs scored his rookie season; a .342 batting average in ’49; six pennants; nineteen career steals of home plate.

Sharon Robinson ’76NRS knows her father’s numbers. But what if someone were to keep track of her professional stats — as a nurse midwife? Fifty births within her first six months of practice . . . a hundred within the first year . . . 250 after five years. Sharon has delivered some 750 babies — Hank Aaron territory. And that’s not counting the births she’s overseen as a teacher, first at the Columbia School of Nursing and later at Yale, Howard, and Georgetown.

There’s more. How about nine books published, 1,500 students who have received scholarships from the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and thirty-two million kids reached by Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life, the educational program that Sharon started in 1997? Those numbers tell many stories.

What if there were bubblegum cards for everyone?

 

Sharon Robinson is awfully approachable for a member of cultural royalty. She’s unpretentious, contemplative, quick to laugh. You can see her father in her face, can hear him in her voice, but after a minute you can almost forget that this is the daughter of an American folk hero.

When Sharon was born, in 1950, her father was one of the most famous, most important people in the country. As the first Black player in the majors in the modern era, Jackie Robinson had electrified baseball with his dynamic, aggressive style and ferocious will, and through his courage and dignity he had moved the nation forward. Polls rated him second in popularity only to Bing Crosby, and Life photographers showed up to take family portraits a decade before the Kennedys and the astronauts.

Being Jackie Robinson’s daughter came with blessings and challenges. “I learned very early on that I shared my dad with the world,” Sharon says. Her father was a passionate civil-rights activist who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and he instilled in his family an ethos of service and a commitment — “an ongoing family mission,” says Sharon — to work for social change. “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives,” Jackie Robinson often said. The words are inscribed on his tombstone, and Sharon lives by them.

 

Sharon was six when her dad retired from baseball, after the 1956 season. To protect his family’s privacy, Jackie Robinson had moved the family from an integrated neighborhood on Long Island to a new house on six wooded acres in North Stamford, Connecticut. There was a lake on the property, which the kids — Jackie Jr., Sharon, and David — would skate on in winter. Sharon recalls her father, who couldn’t swim and was afraid of water, walking out on the frozen surface each year to test the thickness of the ice.

To her dad, she was “sweet, shy Sharon” — so sweet, he’d say, that she could sweeten his tea with her pinky. Her mother, Rachel, was beautiful, sophisticated, and accomplished. Sharon and her brothers were raised in the glow of excellence and fame, and inevitably that glow cast shadows. How could they ever measure up? Or establish their identities, or own their success? Even Sharon, the girl, the middle child, who’d never had baseball bats shoved into her little hands by strangers with cameras, became aware, as she got older, of the pressure to achieve.

She was an athlete in high school. She played basketball, softball, and volleyball, and loved to swim. In many ways it was a normal childhood: family dinners, games of Monopoly with Dad, afternoons watching soap operas with her maternal grandmother, who lived with the family. (The Doctors was their favorite.) Sometimes Sharon would sneak off with her grandma’s romance novels. Sharon had always figured she’d get married and have lots of kids, and maybe even write a romance novel of her own. But her mother, a psychiatric nurse who taught at Yale, was pushing her toward college and a career.

Meanwhile, her mother and grandmother pampered the boys: rebellious, sensitive Jackie Jr. and adventurous, funny David. And Dad was at the center of everything.

 "My mother is very pro-male — whether it’s the boys or my father, they’re exalted,” Sharon says. “Part of it is cultural in the Black community, because we see the males as more targeted; they’re the bigger threat to the status quo. We want them to be safe. We think we’re building their self-esteem, but actually, it forces the women to be ultra-strong and sort of weakens the men.” Sharon laughs. “We should push them out of the nest earlier. That’s typically what Black families do with the girls: they push them out. We’re not going to pamper you; you’re going to have to take care of your family, your church, and your community.”

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