Red Sox and Northeastern’s Richard O’Bryant celebrate Jackie Robinson’s legacy during tribute to baseball legend

richard o'bryant and another person sitting on stage
Richard O’Bryant, director of Northeastern University’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, Boston Red Sox legends like Tommy Harper and Jackie Robinson Foundation leaders reflected on Jackie Robinson’s legacy during a tribute at the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Jackie Robinson, the trailblazer who, in 1947, became the first Black player in Major League Baseball, left behind a legacy that continues to affect sport and society today. 

Ahead of Black History Month, the Boston Red Sox held the 20th annual Jackie Robinson Celebration of Life on Jan. 31, what would have been Robinson’s 104th birthday, at Roxbury’s John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science to honor Robinson’s legacy.

During a panel discussion moderated by NESN’s Jahmai Webster, Red Sox legends and leaders joined members of the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Richard L. O’Bryant, director of Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, to discuss what Americans can still learn from Robinson’s story.

“His courage and his conviction and his commitment and his greatness were an example for all of us to be able to follow,” O’Bryant said. “I personally think that people like that help us to be inspired to do better.”

On April 15, 1947, Robinson shattered Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he stepped onto Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to play his first game as a Brooklyn Dodger against the Boston Braves. In his first season, he earned the Rookie of the Year Award, and later became the 1949 National League MVP and played in six All-Star Games. During his 10-year career in the league, the Dodgers won six National League pennants and the 1955 World Series. In 1997, the MLB permanently retired Robinson’s jersey number, 42.

The son of Boston civil rights legend John D. O’Bryant, the namesake for Northeastern’s African American institute and the Roxbury school in which the event took place, Richard O’Bryant is keenly aware of what it means to set an example for future generations.

“Folks like that, [who] took those chances, that was an example for a lot of us to look at and say, ‘You can be good, you can be great and you can also have a social impact on the things that you do,’” he said. 

Elaine Steward, vice president and club counsel for the Boston Red Sox, said Robinson “was so much more than an athlete.” She has experienced Robinson’s legacy firsthand: She is the first Black woman to serve in an executive position in an MLB front office.

“His impact is throughout society, not just restricted to baseball,” Steward said.

Ivo Philbert, vice president of external relations and special projects for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, said most people don’t know that Robinson was a critical voice in the civil rights movement. He worked with the NAACP and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., using his voice and platform to raise money and support in the fight for civil rights. 

Robinson was also an entrepreneur who leveraged his resources to help other Black people secure financial support and housing.

“Back then, Blacks could not get banking services,” Philbert said. “Jackie Robinson helped to found Freedom National Bank so that Blacks could get banking services. Black people had a hard time getting housing. The Jackie Robinson Development Corporation built affordable housing in Brooklyn, so Black people can get housing.”

But Robinson’s impact on sports remains the most significant part of his legacy. Robinson’s composure in the face of racial slurs and death threats, on top of his skill as an athlete, were an inspiration to players like Tommy Harper. The Red Sox hall of famer started his MLB career in 1962, in the middle of the civil rights movement.

“I experienced some of the things that Jackie Robinson experienced, and a lot of players in my era did also,” Harper said. “But we got inspiration from the way Jackie Robinson carried himself not only on the field but off the field.”

Robinson, a tenacious base stealer, died in 1972, the same year Harper was named stolen base champion, a title he dedicated to Robinson’s legacy.

In 2010, almost 50 years after Harper entered the league, Darnell McDonald joined the Red Sox with a bang. He hit a game-tying home run against the Texas Rangers during his first at-bat in the eighth inning, followed by a game-winning walk off. But before all that, he grew up idolizing Robinson. He wore Robinson’s No. 42 throughout his high school career and “wanted to be like Jackie Robinson.”

“This guy sacrificed basically his life so that we as African Americans could have the opportunity to play professional baseball,” McDonald said. “It’s more than baseball. [He] gives us hope––[he] gives us all hope––that you can do anything that you want to do.”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.