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Baseball exhibit on blacks in the game offers life lessons for everyone

June 9, 1997

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) _ Eugene Somera has only been in the United States a few months and he already knows about Jackie Robinson. His English teacher, Joseph Lopes, made sure of that not long after Somera arrived last October from the Philippines.

``In part of my curriculum we do a lot of reading, and one of the stories that we read was about Jackie Robinson,″ said Lopes, who teaches English as a second language in Woodriver Junction, R.I. ``At the time, Eugene was the newest student, so he was the one that had the least amount of English.″

That didn’t prevent Lopes from encouraging Somera and two other students _ Michel Boutros of Syria and Amir Garcia Sanchez of Mexico _ to enter a national essay-writing contest conducted by the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although none of the three immigrant kids won anything in the contest, their short essays lent a touching moment to the celebration of Robinson’s historic integration of baseball 50 years ago.

``When I came to this country I was like Jackie Robinson,″ Boutros wrote. ``I needed courage because I didn’t speak English. Everything was new to me, and I was the first Syrian in this school. After I read Jackie Robinson’s story I felt better. He taught me that I need courage.″

Courage is the theme that runs through a new, powerful exhibit at the Hall of Fame: ``Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience.″

The exhibit, which opens June 12, traces the involvement of blacks in baseball from the second half of the 19th century to the present. Photos, text, artifacts, and an interactive component will help tell the story of men like Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige and so many others, and what they had to endure.

``It’s as significant as anything we’ve ever done, to have an exhibit that tells a story that’s as old as professional baseball,″ Hall of Fame curator Ted Spencer said. ``We want people to come out of the exhibit shaking their heads, `Wow! We didn’t realize.‴

Didn’t realize that Currier & Ives cruelly ridiculed and slurred blacks in the 1880s in some of its famed prints. Didn’t realize that bashing blacks was a way of life, as is evident in part of the new exhibit in an 1887 letter to the editor of the newspaper Sporting Life.

Many don’t realize, even today, what men like Jackie Robinson endured. Amanda Neely is not among them.

Neely, an 11th-grader at West Perry High School in Elliottsburg, Pa., won the Hall of Fame’s essay contest with thoughts on the man such as these: ``Jackie Robinson’s heroics challenged ballplayers to strive for excellence of character as well as success on the playing field. Not only did baseball’s color barrier break when the Dodgers signed Robinson, but also the racial walls around the United States started to crumble. Because of Jackie Robinson’s integrity and courage, all Americans have the opportunity to live out their fantasies on the neighborhood sandlots and follow their dreams in the major league stadiums.″

Amanda’s father, Fred, alerted her to the contest, and she picked up the ball from there.

``It was just something that I wanted to do,″ said Amanda, who like Robinson once did in his heyday, plays second base and first base. ``I think that I can only imagine (how difficult it was for him).″

Sixteen-year-old Theresa Breton of Fitchburg, Mass., could only imagine, too. Like the other entries, she made a poignant point of her own: ``He is one man whom everyone should look up to and remember, not only for one month but for every month.″

The essays of Somera and his schoolmates may not have measured up to Amanda Neely’s, but that wasn’t important, really.

``I think all of them were impressed by Jackie Robinson,″ Lopes said. ``The word that came out (in their essays) was courage. They were impressed that he had a lot of courage.

``They can identify with Jackie Robinson because he encountered a lot of prejudice. These kids, even though we’re in a good school system, they still feel different. They’re treated differently. They speak differently. They might identify with Jackie Robinson on that level.″

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