A passion grows into a life's mission
Britton Baeza's work helps realize Robinson's goals
NEW YORK -- Everything in life, it seems, comes full circle.There was this little girl who went to Pirates games with her dad at Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field in the 1960s. And after a successful tour as an attorney and entrepreneur, many years later, she returned to her childhood roots as the president of one of baseball's most prestigious foundations. "That's one of the things daddy and daughter used to do together," recalled Della Britton Baeza, president of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. "It was the days of Donn Clendenon on first base, Bill Mazeroski on second, Jose Pagan at shortstop, Roberto Clemente was in the outfield. I was in grade school back then. It was always sports. I had five brothers. The Steelers and the Pirates, we still talk about them when I go home." She was a child of a multi-racial family. Her father and mother had to flee to Brooklyn so they could wed before she was born because, at the time, Pennsylvania refused to sanction mixed marriages. New York, in the blush of the end of World War II, was more enlightened. Upon their return, her dad, an African-American, bought a perpetual pair of season tickets for Pirates games. On baseball Saturdays during the spring and summer, the little girl sat with her dad, while the boys were given general-admission seats to roam around the old yard, which was located along the trolley lines east of downtown -- adjacent to the University of Pittsburgh campus.
Today, in fact, one of the school's buildings stands on that cherished real estate, and home plate is encased in plastic right on the same spot where Forbes Field was located when Mazeroski won the 1960 World Series over the Yankees with his walk-off, Game 7, ninth-inning homer against Ralph Terry that sent the entire city reeling. The right-angled corner of the red-brick center-field wall at its greatest distance from that plate is still located across the street.Baeza was 6 years old then, 54 years old now, and it would be the last World Series the Bucs would win within the confines of that old edifice. "Sure, I remember the 1960 World Series," Britton Baeza said. "I remember getting my tonsils out, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to go to the games." The little girl was way too young to see the dashing Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but her dad had told her all the stories. The man who shattered baseball's color barrier 61 years ago this Tuesday was long gone from the game by then, having retired in 1956. But in the 1960s, Robinson was very much an activist, his visage appearing on television and his words regularly illuminating newspapers and magazines as he penned his own topical columns that dealt with politics, life and business, but rarely baseball. Aside from choice occasions, Robinson was pretty much estranged from the sport by then, and he would be for most of the remaining days of his life. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962, and he passed away from complications of diabetes a decade later. "I was born in 1953, so by the time I started going to games with my dad, he was retired," she said about Robinson. "But I sure knew who he was." Her favorite player was Clendenon back then, a tall, burly African-American, who went to Montreal in 1969 and then on to the Mets later that same season. Clendenon, who passed away in 2005, was the first baseman on that miracle Mets team, which won the '69 World Series. "We had seats along first base," Britton Baeza said. "I remember Donn Clendenon with that big stretch. I loved the guy. I loved his first-base style. I think I met him a few times. I was a little girl in pigtails who was there religiously. I'd sort of wave to him." It is no small irony, then, that Robinson broke in as a first baseman with his 1947 Brooklyn team and paved the way for all the African-American players who came after him, including the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood and, of course, Clendenon, a .274 lifetime hitter, who hit 159 homers in his 12 big league seasons. It is no small irony as well that Britton Baeza is now a lifer in Robinson's foundation, which was founded by Rachel Robinson as a fitting tribute to her late husband some 35 years ago. The foundation offers college scholarships to underprivileged, but highly motivated minority kids, and Britton Baeza is perhaps its prime motivating force. "Della is a tremendous leader with boundless energy and a profound commitment to our mission," said Rachel Robinson, who, along with the board, picked her to run the foundation. "She has a truly contagious passion for the work we do." Unlike male-dominated Major League Baseball, the foundation has a matriarchal hierarchy, with Rachel as its titular head, Britton Baeza as its day-to-day decision-maker and Sharon, Robinson's daughter, as vice chairman of the organization. The exception is Len Coleman, who has been chairman of the foundation's board for a decade. Coleman was the last president of the National League before the offices of both the NL and American League were absorbed under the umbrella of MLB in the mid-90s. Coleman, always an affable man, laughed when asked what it's like to persist in the foundation's makeup after his years in baseball. "I don't know if I should comment on that or not," Coleman said. "We work well together. We enjoy each other. Like baseball, the personalities in the foundation tend to be strong. There's never any lack of opinion." As far as Britton Baeza is concerned, Coleman said there was no doubt about her credentials -- Princeton University undergraduate, Columbia University law school -- right from the outset of the interview process when the foundation was searching for its fourth president. And her vivacious personality simply enthralled everyone. "She just blew us away," said Coleman, also a Princeton graduate. "And it turned out to be well-founded. The students relate to her very well. She does an excellent job with the funders. The program has expanded greatly under her leadership. This year, we have 271 students in 93 universities. So it's significantly up from where it was when she came in about five years ago." And right now, there's no time to sleep, Britton Baeza said, noting that 70 percent of her job is fund-raising. With the Jackie Robinson Museum so close to reality that she can taste it, Britton Baeza is about halfway to her goal of raising more than $25 million for the project. Thus, she's existing on dual fund-raising tracts: raising money for the museum and raising money to maintain the scholarships, which is the foundation's prime function. "I'm always in perpetual motion here," said Britton Baeza, whose energy level is so high octane, it would dwarf an acetylene torch. "That's the challenge: you want to make sure that you don't lose sight of your primary operational goal while you're raising money for a new project." It's no wonder, then, that with Rachel nearing 86, the leadership torch has already been passed to Britton Baeza, who now figures that this is where her career path was meant to take her. From baseball back to baseball, she has certainly come full circle. "Isn't that interesting?" Britton Baeza said. "That's exactly right. Sports were such a big part of my family life growing up. Looking back on those days at Forbes Field, I never would've thought that I'd be back in sports in such a profound way."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.