After Jackie Robinson agreed to be the Grand Marshal of New Haven’s Freddy Fixer Parade in 1972, he was interviewed on WELI radio by Joel Alderman, the writer of this article. This photo has never before been published.
Jackie Robinson once came to New Haven to lead a parade
By Joel Alderman
Jackie Robinson is known internationally as the first black man to play major league baseball, and an outspoken leader in the civil and human rights movements. His biography has been told in all ways possible. These include two full length movies, most recently the one titled 42, books, magazine articles, newspaper columns, television documentaries, and radio features. What seems to be missing from all of these biographies is that Jackie Robinson was once the grand marshal of a community parade here in New Haven.
This is relatively unknown to the general public, although some city residents, who are survivors of that era, and who are now in the post-50 age bracket, may still be aware of it.
Through the following article, the documented life story of this immortal African-American hero is now more complete, and younger generations can take pride in learning that Robinson came to New Haven to give his support to the community.
This past Sunday (May 18th) an annual event in New Haven, known as the Freddy Fixer Parade, took place under sunny skies and with enthusiastic marchers and spectators.
The parade has been held for 52 years. Its founder was the late Dr. Frederick Smith and the original purpose was to encourage elderly residents to fix their properties and clear trash from the streets.
The parade this year, however successful, could not have been expected to exceed the attention and prestige it gained in 1972, which was primarily due to the participation of Jackie Robinson, whose name and uniform number, 42, are still symbols of hope and achievement, especially to African Americans.
On this occasion, when he was the figurehead leader of the parade, he helped attract 20,000 to 30,000 men, women and children to line the streets. There were 50 marching units, including bands, drill teams and floats.
Jackie was a shadow of his former self
Robinson was by then a man suffering with heart trouble and diabetes. He was thin, blind in one eye and with only partial vision in the other. The man who once ran fast enough to steal home in the 1955 World Series, could by then only walk with a limp. He had survived a heart attack in 1968.
However much he had changed physically, he was still the beloved Jackie Robinson, the player whose number 42 is now forever retired by baseball. He appeared happy to be in the New Haven parade as it proceeded along Dixwell Avenue, on the same route it took this year.
He was 53 years of age, yet did not complain about how he had aged and deteriorated physically.
“When you crack the century mark, you expect problems,” he told Jon Stein of the New Haven Journal-Courier that day.
“I can’t feel that badly for my own problems, when there are so many problems in this country,” he said.
He had already read “The Boys of Summer,” which was published earlier that year and became one of the most celebrated baseball books ever written. It dealt with the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers and tracked the lives of the players as they aged, including himself.
“I loved that book. I thought Roger Kahn did a great job. I think I’ve been fortunate more than most (of the others included in the book). . . Our lives have been the way it is for most people.”
Robinson was a long time resident of Connecticut when he was grand marshal of the parade. He and his wife, Rachel, were living in Stamford at 95 Cascade Road, since building their home in the mid-1950’s. According to a real estate agency description, it had a swimming pool shaped like a baseball glove.
He had a good explanation for being late
Although the Robinsons only had to go about 35 miles from Stamford to get to New Haven for the parade, they were about 90 minutes late. When asked why they were delayed, he joked “Well, I have been in an accident . . . Old age.”
When the parade got under way, Jackie took a seat in an open convertible alongside New Haven Mayor Bart Guida. Despite the late spring heat and humidity, Robinson was wearing a tie and jacket.
As the parade proceeded down its mile and a half route, he waved and smiled appreciatively to his well-wishers.
The Robinson family lived in Stamford since 1955, and the city paid tribute by creating a memorial park at 860 Canal Street.
He was given a key to the city
Mayor Guida presented Robinson with a key to the city. He said it represented “a symbol of not only the key to the city, but what is in our hearts today, a welcome of love in the hearts of all New Haveners.”
In accepting the key and the mayor’s good wishes, Robinson said for himself and his wife, “It’s a very thrilling day for us.”
His wife was already very familiar with the city having been an Assistant Professor of psychiatric nursing at the Yale School of Nursing. In addition, she had held the position of Director of Nursing at the Connecticut State Mental Health Center, located in New Haven.
Robinson expressed his feelings about baseball and politics
Never reluctant to express his opinions, Robinson revealed some of his views on politics and baseball to Stein.
“It doesn’t bother me one iota that baseball has lost some of its popularity. It has its problems and I have mine. It has never shown concern about mine. I don’t for it.”
So went the very forthright feelings he expressed that day about baseball’s lack of concern for him, and apparently he did not elaborate. It is far different from the reverence the game has come to express since his death, an example of which is the permanent retirement of his uniform number, 42.
When asked who he thought would be the first black manager, Robinson said he believed it should be Willie Mays. After the San Francisco Giants traded Mays to the New York Mets, he was “disappointed,” and thought that “baseball once again showed so little concern for the black stars who’ve done so much for it.”
He was very outspoken politically as well. He had been a Republican and originally supported President Richard Nixon. By the time of the parade that was no longer the case.
“We’re turning around and going backwards in terms of race relations,” he said at the press conference. “We saw the light at the end of the tunnel and then we got Mr. Nixon.”
Robinson also was highly critical of segregationist George Wallace, who was running in the democratic primaries for the presidential nomination. Jackie said that “in a country where George Wallace could be elected president, we are in serious trouble.”
Eight days before the New Haven parade, Wallace was shot by a would-be assassin and partially and was permanently paralyzed. Robinson expressed the belief at the press conference that Wallace would withdraw his candidacy, which is what later happened.
The sudden passing of Jackie Robinson
Five months and two days after Jackie Robinson was the grand marshal of the Freddy Fixer Parade in New Haven, he suffered a heart attack at his home. He was rushed to Stamford Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The baseball world, and those outside of sports, who admired who he was and what he stood for, were deeply saddened.
Many of the residents of New Haven must have felt a personal loss. His death came so near to when they saw him happily waving to them while leading the Freddy Fixer parade. They had lost a friend and a supporter.
The irony of time
There is a special irony in writing this column within days of the anniversary of that hopeful, happy and perhaps ominous day in New Haven, when Jackie Robinson was the Grand Marshal.
The parade took place on May 21st. The year was 1972. Now it is 2014. When I computed the exact number of years that have passed, from then to now, I had a chilling reaction.
The number of years that have passed since Jackie Robinson came to New Haven to lead the Freddy Fixer Parade is 42.
Caplan, Colin. Legendary Locals of New Haven Connecticut; Freddie Fixer. Charleston, S.C: Arcadia Publising; 2013
Tenth Freddy Fixer Parade Takes Tone of Black Unification. The New Haven Register. (1992, May 22)
Stein, Jon. (1992, 22 May). Jackie Thought Willie Would Be Giant Boss. New Haven Journal-Courier.