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Jackie was here, but hardly anyone remembers

April 11, 1997 GMT

CAIRO, Ga. (AP) _ The place where Jackie Robinson began his journey to sports stardom and social immortality is just this side of the Ochlocknee River.

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

All that’s left of the house where Robinson is said to have taken his first breath 78 years ago are two brick fireplaces: A fire destroyed the abandoned structure about a year ago. Charred, twisted sheet metal from the roof is camouflaged by stalks of bamboo that tower 10 feet or more above the ground.

The man who broke major league baseball’s color barrier 50 years ago and starred with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a decade emerged from this desolate patch on Hadley Ferry Road in Cairo (pronounced KAY-ro), a blue-collar town of about 10,000.

Robinson was born on Jan. 31, 1919. Papers at Rodenberry Memorial Library say he was born in a shack out on a plantation, where his parents were confined to a life of poverty as sharecroppers.

But Dr. Linda Walden, a third cousin of Robinson who opened her medical practice here last year, said the story passed down from generations points to the spot on Hadley Ferry Road as the birthplace.

``There was never a dispute in our family about where he was born,″ she said.

Robinson, the youngest of five children, was apparently delivered by his grandmother, a midwife. His father abandoned the family shortly after, leaving behind wife Mallie, who faced the wrath of the plantation owner.

``Her husband was supposedly one of the best workers they had on the farm,″ Walden said. ``When he left ... she had to do not only her work, but his work, too.″

Mallie Robinson decided that life had to better outside the Jim Crow South, so she packed up her children in the middle of the night and caught a train to California, where she had a brother. Jackie was 2 or 3 years old then.

Just a few hundred yards from the homesite, two cousins still live next to each other at the end of a dirt road. Elstine Brown was born a few months after Robinson. She and her sister, 73-year-old Hattie Mae Jones, have little recollection of their famous relative.

``We never thought he would be famous enough to keep up with,″ said Brown, sitting under a painting of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. ``I heard ’em say he was a great runner. Was it football he played?″

Every road leading to Cairo has signs telling motorists that this is the hometown of four-time Olympic basketball player Teresa Edwards and the high school team that won a state football championship in 1990. There is nothing to indicate that it was Robinson’s hometown.

Last year, Bill Bass Sr., a prominent local lawyer and member of the school board, led a successful drive to rename the baseball field at Cairo High School after Robinson.

``Frankly, somebody should have done something before now,″ said Bass, who is white. ``It was the right thing to do.″

Walden wonders why the town waited so long to recognize Robinson, who died Oct. 24, 1972, in Connecticut.

``I was very happy to see something finally take place to commemorate what he stood for, the things he did not only for just Cairo, but for the country,″ she said. ``He deserves much more than that.″

But Bass pointed out that Robinson didn’t grow up in Cairo, so no one had much connection to him. Robinson visited only once after he left, sometime around 1950.

Walden has begun the Jackie Robinson Cairo Memorial Foundation. She hopes to raise enough money to erect a monument in the center of town and provide scholarships to youngsters, many of whom know very little about Robinson.

``I know he was the first black person to play baseball,″ said 14-year-old Jerrod Harris, who is black. ``I think he played with the, uh, New York Yankees.″

At the home field of the Cairo High School Syrupmakers is a prominent sign: ``Jackie Robinson Field.″ A bronze plaque sits atop a block of granite behind the backstop. It notes Robinson’s accomplishments: Six National League championships. MVP 1949. 1962 Baseball Hall of Fame. Lifetime batting average .311.

``It feels good to know someone who lived in this county, walked the same ground I’m walking on, is considered one of the greatest players of all time,″ outfielder Daniel Hammond said. ``It just gives you hope that you can come out of a small town and make it big.″

But baseball has lost its appeal to many youngsters, especially minorities. There are only two blacks on this year’s team.

Of course, Robinson could not have played at this field, even if he had remained here. Integration didn’t come until the early 1970s.

``But I’ll call it his field,″ coach Steve Bowers said. ``I spend a lot of time down here keeping it up for him.″

End Adv for weekend release, April 12-13.