Jackie Robinson: How To Build A Legacy That Matters

An intimate look at the man behind the myth and his lessons on making a genuine impact.

“My father believed that your life can be so integrated into your fellow man’s that you become one. There is an incredible joy in that unity … in striving for servant leadership and community development before wealth.” – David Robinson

Jackie Robinson is a national hero. The first African American to break through the baseball color barrier in 1947, he symbolized the end of segregation in Major League Baseball (MLB) and became a key icon for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. famously lauded him as “the man I couldn’t do this without.” Robinson became the first athlete honored with the retirement of his number, 42, and the first baseball player to receive an annual MLB day of commemoration. 

However, this barely scratches the surface of Robinson’s true legacy. In an interview with Dave Roberts, manager of the L.A. Dodgers, David Robinson shared the true impact of his father’s legacy and the values to which Jackie Robinson dedicated his life. 

Based on this interview, we share Jackie Robinson’s cornerstones to building a legacy that matters.

1. Your Legacy Is Built on the History of Humanity

“My father grew up with a grandmother who was a slave and a mother who was a sharecropper,” David said. “He was aware of the pain and suffering of the past and the hard work of those who came before him. He always saw himself as another part of the human story and looked beyond himself to understand what role he could play.”

According to David, Jackie Robinson believed that everybody’s existence is built on the history of their family and humanity. He taught his son to identify himself as more than just an individual whose life has some great singular meaning, and instead to look closely at his dreams. Did they have the dreams of his ancestors hiding in their folds? Would he discover a path that was left for him by those who came before, a road that had not yet been fully traversed?

Jackie Robinson’s uniform No. 42 was retired by the Dodgers on June 4, 1972 along with Hall of Fame teammates Roy Campanella (39) and Sandy Koufax (32). All Major League teams retired No. 42 in honor of Robinson in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Dodgers.

“The dreams of humanity have yet to be fully realized,” David said. “And that is an inheritance that we are both gifted with and responsible for driving forward. My father taught me that I could find, with great pride, that my dream would service the unrealized objectives of those in the past. That it could realize a future that would be desired by my children and grandchildren.”

David says that the most valuable thing his father taught him was the importance of a life lived in service. “I learned early on that too much attention is given to accruing wealth and material things when meaning is to be found in sacrificing your life to the service of others,” he said.

2. If You Break the Barrier, You Become the Doorway

“One of the most important things my father did was make sure that his legacy was a pathway for others,” David said. “He may have broken the barrier, but he saw it as his duty to ensure that many more people could make it through the door.”

David shared that this was the reason the Jackie Robinson Foundation set up a scholarship fund for students with academic excellence. “This was his first initiative,” David said. “It was important to him that a lack of funds not stop young people from developing their full human potential.”

3. A Legacy That Matters Will Never Be Yours Alone

Jackie Robinson’s marriage and friendships were an essential part of his success and legacy. 

David explains that “95 years ago, my father was a kid on the streets of Pasadena. There was poverty, hardship, troubles …. The children on his street formed a group, ‘The Pepper Street Gang.’ They vowed to look after each other.”

Seventy years ago, one of those children, Jack Gordon, moved to the East Coast with Jackie Robinson. “His daughter became our family accountant as my father’s success grew,” David said. “So, as my father found, friendship is not only the unity that you create in the moment, but the potential of creating unity over generations.”

David shares that his mother was also an essential element in the strength of his father’s legacy. “Not only was she there during every moment of the hard years he faced as he fought racism, but she was also the key person who carried on his legacy after he passed,” he said. 

Jackie Robinson won Major League Baseball’s first Rookie of the Year award in 1947. Today, the award bears his name. Photo courtesy: Los Angeles Dodgers.

This example taught David to believe that strong partnerships are the most important thing that any of us will build over the course of a lifetime.

4. Being Genuine Is More Important Than Being Qualified

David says that his father was a man who enjoyed simple pleasures, “He lived with a humility that came naturally to him, teaching others primarily with his life,” he says. “I don’t think of him as an intellectual who would drag you down with long statements. Instead, the poignancy of what he was able to teach me, even in basic words, was far more impactful than a college lecture could ever be. So, I loved him. We loved him. That was his power.”

5. It Only Matters if the Impact Grows After You’re Gone

“I never aimed to follow in my father’s footsteps with a career in baseball. I aimed to carry on his legacy,” David said, explaining that while baseball was his father’s vehicle for change, “mine has been housing reform in the United States and empowering family farmers in Tanzania to join the global market. My father’s legacy has always been about uplifting others, building communities, furthering humanity. I am very proud to have dedicated my life to this, and to have been graced with opportunities to expand this legacy.”

6. The Legacy Is Always Bigger Than You

David shares that his father only wanted to know one thing: What are you doing for your fellow man? Jackie Robinson never perceived his legacy as about his individual success. It was a gift from the past, an eternal human aim. He lived his life as someone gifted with an opportunity to live in its service.

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