April 28, 1997 12:00 PM

FOR A TIME ON APRIL 15, IT WAS as if Jackie Robinson were alive again. High on the jumbo screen at New York City’s Shea Stadium, the old Brooklyn Dodger infielder flashed by in a blur of grainy black-and-white images—slashing line drives, recklessly stretching singles into doubles and, of course, dancing off third before dramatically stealing home. The evening’s live game between the Mets and the L.A. Dodgers paled until after the fifth inning, when everything stopped. President Clinton and acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig walked to home plate, escorting Robinson’s elegant widow, Rachel. It was time for the nation to pause in tribute to the firebrand who, 50 years ago to the day, became the first African-American in this century to play major league baseball.

The crowd of 54,000 stood and cheered Selig when he announced that Robinson’s number, 42, would be permanently retired, never again to be stitched on a big league uniform. Then the President, in a single sentence, assessed Jackie Robinson’s legacy: “He changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever.”

Indeed, it may well diminish Jack Roosevelt Robinson to say he was the most significant athlete in U.S. history. For what Robinson did in breaking baseball’s color barrier 50 years ago was spin American society off its axis—and help jump-start the civil rights movement years before Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. “He made integration seem heroic,” notes Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. “It was a great act of black self-assertion.”

And yet Robinson’s bravest feat may well have involved self-restraint. Proud and volatile—as an Army lieutenant in Texas, he’d been court-martialed (though he was later acquitted) for refusing to move to the back of a bus—he promised Dodger president Branch Rickey that for the sake of their “noble experiment” he would refrain from retaliating against racial slurs, no matter how vile. Robinson not only survived the insults—and the injuries inflicted by opponents’ spikes and beanballs—he excelled, winning the first Rookie of the Year Award and launching a career that, on its own merits, earned him a place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

So, he was a hero. But Jackie Robinson was also a complicated, difficult man. “Jackie was a real person, not a mythical giant,” says retired pitcher Carl Erskine, 70, one of his best white friends on the Dodgers. “He bled, and he made mistakes.” Prickly, sometimes scathingly tactless, Robinson was always fiercely independent. After leaving baseball for a life of business and social activism, he was an anomaly—a black who, out of his belief in self-reliance, supported Republicans. He argued publicly with Martin Luther King over Vietnam. He called Malcolm X a racist. Malcolm branded him an Uncle Tom.

Not for nothing did Robinson call his 1972 autobiography I Never Had It Made. He entered the world on Jan. 31, 1919, in the dire poverty of a Cairo, Ga., sharecropper’s farm. His father, Jerry, abandoned the family when Jack was an infant, leaving the boy’s mother, Mallie, to raise Jack and his four siblings alone. In 1920 she moved her brood to Pasadena, Calif., where Jack was the top athlete in high school, starring in football, basketball. track and his weakest sport, baseball.

“Jackie hated Pasadena,” says ex-Dodger teammate Don Newcombe, 71, another pioneering black ballplayer. One reason was local indifference when Robinson’s brother Mack, now 82, came home from the 1936 Berlin Olympics with a silver medal for the 200-meter dash (he’d finished second to Jesse Owens). “All they did was give him a job sweeping the streets,” recalls Jackie’s best friend, Ray Bartlett, 77, who played football with him at UCLA, where Robinson was a halfback and a record-breaking long-jumper. It was 1940 when Bartlett introduced Robinson to a refined nursing student named Rachel Isum. “He walked with such confidence,” says Rachel. “He had a beautiful smile.” In 1942, Jackie was drafted and served stateside during the war, rising to the rank of second lieutenant.

After his honorable discharge, Robinson signed with the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the top Negro League teams, starring at shortstop. “A pretty miserable way to make a buck,” he wrote of the long bus rides and fleabag hotels. He had no idea then that he’d landed on the radar screen of Branch Rickey, who in August 1945 dispatched Clyde Suke-forth, his savviest scout, to bring Robinson to Brooklyn for a job interview. “The first thing Mr. Rickey said [to him] was, ‘All my life I’ve been looking for a great colored player,’ ” recalls Sukeforth, now 95, ” ‘but what I need is more than a great player. I need a man who will accept the worst possible insults.’ ”

Tolerant Montreal, home of the Dodgers’ top farm team, posed few problems for Robinson. But on the road, especially in the Jim Crow South, he got a dose of stateside reality. Still, Robinson tore up the International League, winning the batting championship with a .349 average. By then, he and Rachel had married and she was pregnant with Jack Jr., the first of their three children. Sharon and brother David would follow. Then and through all that followed, Jackie always referred to Rachel as his partner. “He never said ‘I,’ he always said ‘we,’ ” she says. “I was never ‘the little woman’ behind him.”

In April 1947, with Robinson’s promotion imminent, several Brooklyn players protested, but within weeks a number of white Dodgers became Robinson’s friends. Among them was Harold “Pee Wee” Reese, the team captain, a Southerner from Louisville. During one game, the heckling of Robinson became particularly vicious, and Reese made a now-legendary gesture of camaraderie, casually draping an arm around Robinson’s shoulder. His tolerance earned him his share of needling from opponents. “They’d say, ‘Are you sleeping with Jack?’ ” says Reese, 78. “I’d always answer, ‘Hey, I’d sure as hell rather sleep with him than I would with you.’ ”

In the early weeks of ’47, Robinson suffered constant verbal abuse, and sometimes things got physical. Pitches were aimed at his head, base runners came at him spikes high. Still, most opponents tolerated Robinson, and much of America was infatuated with him. One national poll after his rookie year ranked him the second most popular man in the country, after Bing Crosby. But after 1949, when he and Rickey agreed that the time had come to let Jack fight back on field and off, Robinson’s pugnacity started making him enemies. He agitated for the hiring of black managers and spoke out angrily against segregation.

In December 1956, Dodger president Walter O’Malley, Rickey’s successor, unceremoniously traded the fading Robinson to the archrival New York Giants. Rather than report, Robinson quit baseball—but he hardly faded away. He became a leading voice in the civil rights movement and a vice president of the Chock Full O’Nuts restaurant chain and helped found Harlem’s Freedom National Bank. Privately, though, there were new sorrows. In the late ’60s, Jack Jr. returned from Vietnam a drug addict, while daughter Sharon struggled with an abusive marriage. “He was frustrated,” Sharon, now 47 and a nurse-midwife in Norwalk, Conn., says of her father. “He couldn’t reach his oldest son, and he couldn’t protect me.”

By then, Robinson was also a sick man; diabetes had weakened his heart and left him half blind. In 1970, Newcombe, as the Dodgers’ new director of community relations, was assigned to talk his ex-roommate into appearing at an old-timers’ game in Los Angeles. Still bitter over what he regarded as the shabbiness of the trade that had led to his retirement, Robinson had refused to associate with the team for 14 years. “He said, ‘Screw ’em, I’m not coming,’ ” Newcombe recalls. But as a personal favor, Robinson relented. “They gave him a standing ovation for 10 minutes,” says Newcombe. “Sad part about it was, he couldn’t see it because his eyesight was gone. Never see a man age as fast as he aged. Life goes so quick.”

The worst blow came a year later, when Jack Jr., who had apparently conquered his drug habit, was killed in an auto accident at 24. “To lose him at that point,” says Rachel, “was a double tragedy.” Robinson’s condition deteriorated drastically in the next few months. In October 1972 he threw out the first ball at the second game of the World Series in Cincinnati and told the crowd in a quavering voice, “I’d like to live to see a black manager.” Eight days later, while dressing for a morning appointment, he died of a heart attack. Rachel was with him when he died. “He put his arms around me,” Rachel wrote, “said, ‘I love you,’ and just dropped to the floor.”

RICHARD JEROME, with bureau reports

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