Last weekend, the Reds Community Fund hosted a collegiate doubleheader and seven games featuring local high schools in celebration of Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy.
The high school matchups on Saturday were part of the 11th annual Skyline Chili Reds Futures High School Showcase presented by Cincinnati Children’s Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics.
On Friday, the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier with his Major League debut and the 25th anniversary of MLB retiring Robinson’s No. 42, Kentucky State University played two games against Spring Hill College. Kentucky State, a historically black university (HBCU), wore throwback jerseys from the Negro Leagues. The KSU student-athletes, two of which are former Reds RBI players, also received a pair of limited-edition cleats designed by Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., which were donated by Nike.
Prior to the game, Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank emceed a ceremony on the field commemorating the day and honoring Spring Hill head coach Frank Sims for his 45 years of baseball service, including 37 as the Spring Hill skipper.
As part of the ceremony, Michael Carter, Sinclair Community College’s chief diversity officer and senior advisor to president, and Marlon Styles Sr., a former Reds draft pick and community leader, spoke to the significance of the annual Jackie Robinson Day celebration.
“It’s very important, because this was a national undertaking that Mr. Robinson went through,” Styles said. “For him to accept it and accept the consequences that came with it, and to see the end result we’re standing in front of today, it speaks volumes in regard to what he accomplished. And understanding what this day meant to Mr. [Robert] Castellini, his vision and making this come true, and Joe Morgan’s vision, it’s a pleasure to see that.”
“History is really important in order to move forward,” Carter added. “When you talk about Jackie Robinson, people probably don’t recognize he was not the best Negro League player. He was chosen for, I would say, three reasons: he grew up in an integrated community in Pasadena; he was educated; and he was not going to defer because he was from the north. And 11 years before Rosa Parks refused to ride on the back of the bus, Robinson did the same thing as an officer in the Army in 1944. So those things contributed to the fact that he was chosen and selected. Of course, he was a really good player too.”
Carter was responsible for the KSU players wearing Negro League uniforms. The idea stemmed from a gift-giving exercise with his brother. As they grew up and struggled figuring out what to get each other, they had the idea to start exchanging Negro League jerseys. In 2016, Sinclair was the first college in the country to recognize Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues with these jerseys. The last time Sinclair celebrated Robinson in this manner, the game was at Kentucky State. Head coach Rob Henry expressed the desire to be a part of the idea in the future.
“Coach Henry and I have established a relationship over the years and have really wanted to do this game,” Carter said. “We wanted to recognize the Negro Leagues and the historical importance of what they did. How appropriate is it for a historically black college to have Negro League jerseys. And it’s great we’re doing it here in Cincinnati, the home of pro baseball.”
On Saturday, the weekend celebration continued when 12 urban high school teams from greater Cincinnati took the field at the Academy with six consecutive games being played. Courtesy of Nike, all teams wore commemorative jerseys featuring No. 42 on the back in honor of Robinson, which they were able to keep. In addition, the West High and Middletown High School softball teams played a game in honor of the late West High and Reds RBI standout, Gabby Rodriguez. West High’s softball team wore the custom Nike jerseys as well, which also featured Gabby’s No. 13 on the sleeve. During the game, her family members and friends hosted a raffle to raise money for a scholarship fund in her honor.
Events like those from last weekend were exactly what Reds ownership and community leaders envisioned for the Academy when it opened in 2014. With a first-class facility and accompanying fields surrounding it, Cincinnati has a hub to showcase amateur baseball and softball, while using it as a backdrop to highlight the many important dates throughout the year, like Jackie Robinson Day.
“It was important to capture the significance of the 75th anniversary at the Academy,” Frank said. “I’m grateful to our staff and In-Game Sports [High School Showcase operators] for making both days so memorable. The Nike connection also added content and credibility. Together, we were able to keep Jackie’s legacy alive through the student-athletes.”
The Reds played in Los Angeles on Jackie Robinson Day. Like all teams across MLB, Reds players and uniformed personnel wore No. 42 during that night’s game, as has been the case since 2009. The Reds are back at Great American Ball Park this Friday where they will host ceremonies honoring Jackie Robinson Day that will involve the African American Chamber of Commerce. Representatives from Wilberforce University, another HBCU, will take part in a ceremonial first pitch that night prior to the Reds taking the field against the St. Louis Cardinals.