April 11, 2013

By Susan Tofte

Jackie Robinson on Sesame Street

Susan Tofte is Sesame Workshop’s Archivist.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” – Jackie Robinson

Of the hundreds of celebrities who have appeared on Sesame Street, Jackie Robinson is one of the most notable. Workshop co-founder Joan Ganz Cooney met with Robinson in 1969 when she was working to build awareness and outreach prior to the show’s November premiere. Reaching out to Robinson and his connections made sense.

Since retiring from baseball in 1956, Robinson was active in the civil rights movement, working on campaigns for the N.A.A.C.P and developing affordable housing for low-income families. At the meeting, Joan screened the pitch reel for Sesame Street, distributed promotional materials, and talked about the Workshop’s early outreach efforts in poor communities. Robinson must have seen promise in the show. He appeared in the first season, becoming the first athlete to swing by Sesame Street.

In his segment, Robinson recites the alphabet while animated letters appear on the screen next to his head. His speech does not have the cadence or dramatic pauses of James Earl Jones, or the comedic timing of Bill Cosby or Richard Pryor. Unlike the professional athletes that appear on the show today, Robinson did not wear his team’s uniform, or hold a baseball bat or glove to indicate to preschoolers he was a baseball player. He does not banter with Muppets, wear zany costumes, or use catchy songs to help entertain.  But Robinson’s appearance on Sesame Street is worth watching with each new generation of Sesame Street viewers, because it gives parents an opportunity to introduce their children to a remarkable person. Jackie Robinson overcame great adversity to become the first black man to play major league baseball. His remarkable accomplishments on and off the field were a monumental contribution in the civil rights movement.

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