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Jackie Robinson statue stolen, destroyed in Wichita

The Legacy of Jackie Robinson is more important than ever

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Every April 15, MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day with every player wearing the number 42 as the league celebrates the ongoing legacy of Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier.

There are incidents like the one that occurred last week that emphasize how necessary the annual reminder of Robinson’s legacy is. Last Thursday, it was reported that a Robinson statute was cut off at the literal ankles and stolen from a Little League baseball field at McAdams Park in Wichita, Kansas.

As you can see, the vandals were quite thorough.

But simply reporting the theft of the statue undersells the impact of what happened. Reporting from The Athletic puts that impact in perspective:

“It was around noon last Thursday when Bob Lutz walked outside of his work and headed home before the start of his daily radio show. He looked across 17th Street in Wichita, Kan., from the offices of League 42, the nonprofit baseball league he founded in 2013. On a rainy, overcast day, he gazed over toward the Jackie Robinson statue the league had erected in 2021. The statue was a symbol of hope and resilience. Lutz, though, could not see the bronze depiction of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

For a moment, Lutz wondered if it was covered by fog. He blinked. Looked again. Doubting himself, he called an assistant out of the building to join him. The woman looked and also could not see the statue.

Soon they were across the street, where the odd hallucination of a missing statue turned to reality. Jackie Robinson was gone, cut just above his shoetops.

“The emotions,” Lutz said, “were overwhelming.””

This story would be bad enough, but like with most terrible acts of stupidity, the story gets worse. On Tuesday, Witchita Police responded to a morning call in nearby Garvey Park. Police reported a fire in a trash can, in which the dismantled and burned portions of the Robinson statute were found. Surveillance video has led to a truck involved in the theft.

The Wichita Fire Department reported that the statue was “not salvageable.” As of now, the motive for the vandalism is unclear:

“If it turns out it was racially motivated, then obviously that is a deeper societal issue and it certainly would make this a much more concerning theft,” said Bob Lutz, Executive Director of the Little League nonprofit that commissioned the sculpture. “We’ll wait and see what this turns out to be.”

League 42, a youth baseball league named in honor of Robinson, erected the original statute at McAdams Park in 2021. League 42 raised $50,000 for the life-sized statue. Before the statue was found destroyed, the City of Wichita was offering a reward of $5000 seeking the safe return of the statue.

The investigation of the theft of the statute, the subsequent arson, and whether all of it was a hate crime are open questions as of this essay.

Dodger fans around the world have heard the call to action and efforts to try and restore the statute started gaining serious momentum on Tuesday after word of the destruction of the Robinson statue got out.

A GoFundMe has been set up by League 42 Foundation to replace the statue, and as of Wednesday morning has raised over $134,000, nearing its $150,000 goal. Any surplus funds will be used for the operations of the foundation.

While it is tempting to view the theft and destruction of the Robinson statute as an isolated incident, The Athletic also reported in 2021 that vandals had desecrated a history marker that commemorated Robinson’s birthplace Cairo, GA with shotgun fire that focused on the words “Negro American” and “baseball’s color barrier.”

In 2022, MLB, through MLB Charities, assisted with both the replacement of the marker and making an inaugural donation to the Jackie Robinson Fund, an endowment to provide for the perpetual care and protection of the historical marker.

If the Dodgers or MLB wanted to earn some easy publicity for what is now a national story, especially on the eve of Black History Month, it would not take much financial effort to show these vandals, whatever their motivation, that their efforts are in vain.

UPDATE: on Wednesday, MLB did pledge support. From founder and executive director Bob Lutz:

Regardless of the motivation for the theft and destruction of the Robinson statute, Jackie Robinson’s legacy has been bigger than baseball for a long time. Dodger fans, baseball fans really, will continue to outlast these vandals because all they offer is wanton destruction.

Robinson’s legacy cannot be torn down through a shotgun blast or a torn down and burned statute. All these vandals are accomplishing is strengthening the resolve of those who would honor and revere Robinson’s legacy.

In Wichita, the community continues to rally behind League 42 and those who would honor Robinson’s legacy. Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, MO (a place that any baseball fan or traveling Dodger fan should visit) said it best, per The Athletic:

“You can steal the statue, but you cannot steal the spirit of what Jackie represented,” Kendrick said. “I think what you’re seeing from the public at large is a Jackie Robinson-like resolve for good to overcome evil. And so every time that you’re ready to give up on humanity — and we know we can’t give up on humanity — humanity steps up to the plate and reminds us of what we already know: There are more good people than bad people. Always has been, always will be.”

[emphasis added.]

The spirit of Jackie Robinson lives on in everyone who does not give up and does not back down.