The day began with a ceremony honoring the memory of Robinson, who became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues 63 years ago today. Robinson's daughter Sharon and Harold Reynolds of the MLB Network were among the guests on hand to honor No. 42 and to pass his message along to a new generation of players.
"This is a day that exemplifies opportunity, courage and that no one can tell us we can't do what we want to do," said Dan Quintero, the executive director of Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club. "Whatever we strive for, whatever dream we might have, Jackie Robinson is an example of a person who said, 'We can do whatever we want to do.'"
Baseball may have been the primary draw on Thursday, but it was far from the only thread in the tapestry of Jackie Robinson's life. Sharon Robinson spoke of the nine values her father espoused, including courage, integrity and citizenship. She summed it all up with the epitaph on Jackie's tombstone: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."
Reynolds, an alumnus of the Boys & Girls Club himself, was quick to acknowledge that his life was one of those influenced by Robinson -- and not just on the baseball field.
"It goes so far beyond [baseball]," Reynolds said. "Socially, economically -- he knocked down barriers. When you start looking at Jackie Robinson and putting him in context, he's one of the great civil rights figures of all time."
After the ceremony, it was time for baseball. The kids were broken up into several different stations to learn the fundamentals of pitching, hitting and fielding. Each station was manned by clinicians from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, with former Major Leaguer pitchers Don DeMola and Fred Cambria also helping out.
"It's a good experience. I get to come out on a beautiful day, play the sport I love and learn the basics of how to play," said 16-year-old Luis Santini, who was particularly excited to see Reynolds in person. "It feels good to hear him teaching us about the opportunities in baseball and in school. You've got to do good in school to play baseball."
The kids are members not only of the Boys & Girls Club, but also of RBI, which just launched a new, junior division for 5 to 12-year-olds. Now in its 21st year, RBI has served more than one million kids and expects to oversee 300 leagues and around 175,000 kids in North America this season.
Reynolds has been encouraged by the growth of RBI and other grassroots baseball academies that promote African-American participation in the sport. The number of African-Americans in baseball increased last season after steadily declining for over a decade.
"It's disappointing, obviously, but I do think there's help on the way," said Reynolds, who cited the examples of young stars such as Justin Upton, Adam Jones and Jason Heyward. "What I think has been lacking in years past and what I see now with RBI and other academies is being able to teach fundamentals. ... It wasn't that kids weren't playing, but they weren't getting the fundamentals of the game. Now that is changing, and that's why you're going to see more players."
Thursday was all about opportunities in the Bronx -- the opportunity to lace them up on a gorgeous spring day and learn fundamentals, the opportunity to hear from baseball dignitaries and the opportunities opened up so many years ago by Jackie Robinson.
"This really sends a message to the kids about not only the struggles of Jackie Robinson, but what he had to overcome," Quintero said. "As a result, there's a tremendous amount of achievement, and someone they can relate to. He's a hero. And that's why this day is so important for all our children."
Tim Britton is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less