New generation hits iconic playing field as Jackie Robinson’s granddaughter visits

Sonya Pankey Robinson (right) with Rachelle Madrigal, vice-president of the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

VERO BEACH — Sonya Pankey Robinson watched as several young players smacked baseballs into the air, ran bases and performed drills on the same historic grounds where her grandfather Jackie Robinson once trained. 

Sonya Pankey Robinson (left) and Rachelle Madrigal, vice-president of the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, stand in front of a mural of Jackie Robinson inside Building 42. PHOTO BY NICK SAMUEL

“It’s great the kids are being introduced to sports early so they can learn teamwork and discipline,” Pankey Robinson said, attending as nearly 250 youth made their way to the Jackie Robinson Training Complex on Saturday. All around Pankey Robinson are reminders, from pictures to murals, of the iconic Hall of Famer who led the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series. 

“The murals are incredible. This is a very impressive facility and well run,” said Pankey Robinson, of New York, who works as a consultant with Major League Baseball and a brand partner with Robinson licensing. 

But more than the jubilant smile and even the artwork, Pankey Robinson and others were impressed with the mission of the day – to teach youth the art of playing baseball, one of the nation’s favorite pastimes. 

Children ages 4-to-10 practiced the game at the “PLAY BALL” event at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, formerly known as Historic Dodgertown. The sports training venue, which has dorms and a cafeteria for players, is located off Dodger Road and 43rd Avenue in Vero Beach.

“PLAY BALL” is one of many initiatives under the MLB Develops program to expose youth in underserved communities to baseball, said Rachelle Madrigal, vice-president of the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. 

“When we at MLB took over the facility in 2019, our goal was to make it a youth development hub for baseball and softball,” Madrigal said. “We’re trying to grow the game at the youth level and diversify the pipeline up to the major leagues. We want to provide resources for them to be able to compete.”

The “PLAY BALL” event was held one day before the start of MLB’s Trailblazer Series. The series is a two-day event where girls from 23 states traveled to the complex to receive coaching from former women professional baseball players and mentorship from Pankey Robinson. 

The gathering also came two days ahead of Jackie Robinson Day, an annual MLB celebration held on April 15 to honor the day Robinson made his major league debut.


Building 42, an indoor baseball facility created in 2021 at the complex, is the site where many young athletes get coaching from baseball professionals. Inside Building 42 is an indoor turf field, four batting cages, three classrooms and one multi-purpose room. 

MLB Develops programs such as the Hank Aaron Invitational are held at the building, where former major leaguers including two-time World Series Champion Outfielder Ken Griffey Sr. step in to give insight to younger players. 

“We’re bringing in 20-to-30 former MLB players and coaches to share their knowledge at our youth programs,” Madrigal said. “We host programs year-round.”

Amir Elisa swings the bat at the PLAY BALL event held Saturday April 13, 2024 at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach. PHOTO BY JOSHUA KODIS

“PLAY BALL,” also held at Building 42, is geared toward the younger players. Madrigal spoke to the elementary school-aged athletes, saying they should strive to build characteristics that Robinson had, including teamwork, courage, determination, commitment, persistence and integrity – all words that can be seen posted on the walls within Building 42. 

The Vero Beach High School baseball team guided the young players to different stations inside and outside of Building 42. The Vero High players showed the children techniques on pitching, hitting the ball and agility skills. 

Eric Seymour, assistant superintendent of Student Affairs, Advocacy and Access for the School District of Indian River County, gave the kids words of encouragement before the activities began. Each participant was given a number 42 jersey – in honor of Robinson’s uniform he wore with the Dodgers – along with a baseball and bat.

“Having young kids here will inspire them. They’ll get a chance to experience real drills that baseball players do professionally,” said Seymour, who played football and basketball at Vero Beach High School and obtained a double sports scholarship in 1979 to Delaware State University. 

Dr. David Moore, superintendent for the School District of Indian River County, said the event was an opportunity to expose people to baseball. 

“I don’t think people realize the magnitude of what’s here,” Moore said of the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. “It’s a world-class facility where athletes from all over the world come to compete.”

MLB also hosts adult baseball training camps throughout the year at the complex, Madrigal said. In addition to Building 42, the Jackie Robinson Training Complex has the Holman Stadium, several multi-sports fields, a hydrotherapy area and conference center with 20 meeting rooms. 

Robinson’s Impact

Dominique and John Cesar, both of Fort Pierce, said their children love playing baseball. The married couple brought their sons John Michael, 7, and Julian Lucas, 4, to the “PLAY BALL” event in Vero Beach.

Julian Lucas Cesar, 4, and John Michael Cesar, 7, at the “PLAY BALL” event held Saturday April 13, 2024 at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach. PHOTO PROVIDED BY CESAR FAMILY

“I brought my oldest son John last year. He said ‘we’re going to play baseball in honor of Jackie Robinson, the first Black baseball player,’” Dominique Cesar said. “For my oldest son to know that is awesome.”  

Organizers with The Learning Alliance’s Moonshot Reading Rocket, a nonprofit aimed toward having 90 percent of children reading on grade level by the end of third grade, passed out books at the event. One of the books was “Testing the Ice – A True Story About Jackie Robinson,” written by Robinson’s daughter Sharon Robinson.   

The book highlights how Black players like Robinson endured daily discrimination, such as not being able to eat at certain restaurants or stay at hotels because of their race. 

“That was just the way things were in 1945, and no one expected them to change,” Sharon Robinson wrote, detailing a conversation her father had with her and her friends when they were kids. 

Robinson, a six-time All Star and World Series Champion, broke the color barrier in MLB when he played with the Dodgers in 1947, two years after the end of World War II. Robinson, a U.S. Army Veteran who attended Pasadena Junior College and the University of California, Los Angeles, became the first Black player to compete in the major leagues in the modern era.

Before Robinson’s MLB debut, Black people were not allowed to play baseball in the American and National Leagues since the 1880s because of racial segregation. Robinson had played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro leagues before he caught the attention of then-Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Wesley Branch Rickey who signed Robinson.

The facility in his namesake aims to preserve how Robinson prevailed in the midst of racism to dominate the baseball diamond field. 

“This facility was created as a safe haven for African Americans to play baseball,” Madrigal said. 

The Jackie Robinson Training Complex was the first fully integrated MLB spring training site in the south. The sports facility was named a Florida Heritage Landmark in 2014 and added to the U.S. Civil Rights Trail – a series of nationally recognized locations that mark the struggle for equal rights – in 2019.

More than an athlete

Robinson, a second baseman, was known for hitting baseballs into the outfield and dashing to home base in his signature “42” Dodger blue and white uniform. But, his life after retirement in 1957 was equally meaningful.

(L-R) Catcher Roy Campanella; Pitcher Don Newcombe; Pitcher Dan Bankhead; Infielder Jackie Robinson.
Four members of the Brooklyn Dodgers in Dodgertown, in Vero Beach, Florida. PHOTO PROVIDED BY JACKIE ROBINSON TRAINING COMPLEX.

The same year, Robinson became vice-president of personnel at Chock full o’Nuts coffee in New York City, the company’s website shows. Robinson led the NAACP’s Freedom Fund Drive, which raised more than $1 million in efforts to combat racial discrimination. 

The retired baseball legend also helped to create Freedom National Bank, a Black-owned financial institution in Harlem that shut down in 1990. Robinson raised funds for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the March on Washington in 1963, reports show.

The world-famous baseball icon died at age 53 in 1972 from a heart attack.

Even though Pankey Robinson did not play baseball, she still followed in her grandfather’s footsteps delving into entrepreneurship and landing leadership roles at major companies. Pankey Robinson, now a senior business advisor, previously served as the vice-president of Human Resources at Ralph Lauren for Luxury Brands and has more than 20 years of experience in human resources management. 

Robinson’s story continues to be etched in time with facilities like the Jackie Robinson Training Complex that display his image and famous quotes. For Pankey Robinson, each visit to the sports facility serves as a reminder of how her grandfather’s character and resilience helped him to change the course of history.

Pankey Robinson said she hopes the kids who attended “PLAY BALL” develop those same traits throughout their lifetimes.

“I hope what Madrigal said resonated with them,” said Pankey Robinson, also a board director for the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “I think it’s hard for kids that small to understand it.”

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