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Stolen Jackie Robinson statue in Kansas leaves baseball community asking why — Andscape

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In the wake of the theft of the Jackie Robinson statue from McAdams Park in Wichita, Kansas, on Jan. 25, city council member Brandon Johnson is seeking to have it replaced by the start of city youths’ baseball season in the spring.

Johnson, who joined others who gathered at the public park Saturday, saw the theft as a slap in the face. The life-size bronze statue, a centerpiece of an urban renaissance in District 1, was cut to its ankles, leaving two baseball spikes anchored to a concrete base.

“The Jackie Robinson statue was a symbol of hope,” said Johnson. The statue was located in his district. “It wasn’t just an image of him. The statue was representative of all he was to this country and to baseball.”

Historians have chronicled what Robinson meant to America. Yes, he was a baseball pioneer, the Black athlete who broke the color barrier in the Major Leagues in 1947. But he was also a business executive and a significant civil rights activist.

Robinson stood for promise — the promise that America could live up to its principled ideals, a place where freedom existed as a reality and not as just a word.

As he decried the theft in his hometown, Johnson thought about what action to take next. He wants the statue, one of eight statues of Robinson located in U.S., replaced before the baseball season starts for Wichita youths in late March or early April.

“Our hope is to get it back so we can fix it and get it remounted,” he said. “No matter what, we will not allow folks who took this to remove it permanently.”

Civic leaders in Wichita raised $75,000 for the original and commissioned local artist John Parsons to sculpt it. His statue, which weighed between 300 and 400 pounds, was erected on the McAdams Park site in 2021.

With his sculpture, Parsons handcrafted a work that, like the other seven statues of Robinson, reflected the man’s enduring legacy and was praised by sports fans.

Parsons died in 2022, so the immediate question after the theft was whether he had left a mold of the work. Would Wichita, if the original couldn’t be recovered, have to find somebody else to sculpt a replacement?

The city found its answer Saturday: No, it would not.

“The mold is still there,” Johnson said. “We can re-create the statue if we have to.”

One of the eight statues of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 29, 2017, in Pasadena, California.

Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Johnson preferred to have the original back. He remained optimistic the Robinson statue won’t end up like a bronze figure stolen two years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Thieves there took a Native American ballerina statue and sold its metal for scrap, said Raymond Doswell, a historian and the executive director of a museum in Tulsa that recounts the rampage by white mobs in the city that led to the killings of hundreds of Black residents in the “Black Wall Street” massacre in 1921.

Doswell, the former vice president of curatorial services for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has researched Robinson and Black baseball for more than three decades, and was upset about the theft of the statue.

“Brazen and senseless,” he said.

Brian Hanlon, who sculpted one of the eight Robinson statues, agreed.

“Robinson is a profound pioneer in our athletic landscape,” said Hanlon, whose 7-foot sculpture “More than 42” stands outside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. “He helped break a color barrier that was absolutely ludicrous, and that has enabled so many kids to have a joy in sports.”

Others shared Hanlon’s sentiment. John DaRosa, president of the Jackie Robinson Park of Fame in Stamford, Connecticut, is one. The Robinson statue in Stamford was erected in 1999 and has served as the gateway into his city, DaRosa said.

“It’s sad that these things happen,” he said. “It’s scary.”

The “what happened” wasn’t as unnerving as “why it happened,” he said. Was the theft a message about Black icons or just rogues doing what rogues do?

DaRosa expressed relief that the statue in Stamford, where Robinson lived in his retirement from baseball, has never been defaced.

Yet, why was the one in Wichita stolen?

The Jackie Robinson statue at Dodger Stadium before the game between the Colorado Rockies and the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 19, 2017, in Los Angeles.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Such a question spoke to how Bob Kendrick felt about the theft. As president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and a friend of the Robinson family, he could well be called “the unofficial guardian” of that slice of Black history. To talk about that history at all, Kendrick said, Robinson must have a central role in the discussion.

Kendrick had a sense of what people in Wichita felt. Six years ago, the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, a stone’s throw from the baseball museum he runs, was vandalized. A suspected arson fire at Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige’s former home in Kansas City, Missouri, might fall under vandalism as well.

In another example, Kendrick pointed to the destruction of a marker in Cairo, Georgia, that marked the 1919 birth of Robinson, a sharecropper’s son. The plaque was defaced in 2021 when someone fired a shotgun and a high-powered rifle into the marker, damaging it beyond repair.

The MLB replaced the historical marker in 2022, and salvaged pieces of the original are displayed at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Was hate behind the destruction of Robinson’s birth marker or the damage to Paige’s home? Was hate at the core of what happened to the Robinson statue in Wichita?

Kendrick was uncertain. When he heard about the theft, he felt sick. He’s urging scrap dealers not to buy the statue.

“This is a dark moment in Wichita,” he said. “You do get the feeling it’s hate-motivated.”

Hanlon, a self-described sports “nerd,” wasn’t ready to call the theft an act of racism. Perhaps it was just a band of rogues looking for easy money, he said. Bronze statues do have scrap value.

Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey (left) talks to second baseman Jackie Robinson (right) at a team training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, on March 17, 1949.

Curt Gunther/Keystone/Archive Photos/Getty Images

In some ways, Kendrick said, many Americans today think this country has moved beyond racism as the motive behind such incidents. But it hasn’t — regardless of the reason for the theft in Wichita.

Robinson has long stood as a symbol of racial promise. He’s been an inspirational figure who needs to remain fresh in the minds of Americans — from those who live near the Rose Bowl to the small park on the West Side of Stamford, a city of 130,000 people.

DaRosa, though, wasn’t certain Robinson will remain an inspirational figure.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I think as the years go on, it’s Jackie Who?”

Johnson hoped that’s not so.

Already, the council member has heard from people who want to contribute money to getting the Robinson statue standing again — either to recover and remount the original or mold a new one.

Political and community leaders are moving through the process swiftly as they investigate whether the theft was covered under the city’s insurance.

A local nonprofit has offered a reward for information about the theft.

“I’m not a fan of allowing folks who want to vandalize or criminalize things to win,” Johnson said. “I think if the statue is not up by the time the baseball season begins, they win.

“My goal is to make sure they don’t.”

Justice B. Hill grew up and still lives in Cleveland. He practiced journalism for more than 25 years before settling into teaching at Ohio University. He quit May 15, 2019, to write and globetrot. He’s doing both.


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