Cleats from defaced Jackie Robinson statue get new home in Kansas City baseball museum

photo by: Lawrence Brooks IV/KCUR

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick, center, posing with baseball fans who attended the Thursday, April 11, ceremony formally accepting the bronze cleats from a Jackie Robinson statue that was stolen and defaced in Wichita on Jan. 25.

A set of bronze baseball cleats from a vandalized statue of Jackie Robinson have found a new home in Kansas City.

The shoes are all that were salvageable after the life-sized statue was stolen from McAdams Park in Wichita on Jan. 25, police said — just days before Robinson’s 105th birthday and the start of Black History Month.

At a ceremony Thursday on the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s “Field of Legends” display, museum President Bob Kendrick formally accepted the remnants in front of a crowd of baseball fans and visitors to the Historic 18th and Vine district.

“Jackie’s illustrious professional baseball roots began right here in Kansas City, and it was indeed Kansas City and the Negro League who gave arguably America its greatest hero in Jackie Robinson,” Kendrick said.

“There are more statues of Jackie Robinson in this country than any other individual because he symbolizes hope, determination and courage,” he said.

The League 42 nonprofit donated the cleats to the Kansas City museum, and commissioned the Wichita statue in 2021. The organization is named after Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers uniform number, and operates a youth baseball league for primarily urban kids ages 5 to 14.

“We agreed that this was the right and proper place for these cleats to be displayed, and we’re so proud they are going to be displayed here for a long, long time,” said League 42 executive director Bob Lutz, who drove the cleats to Kansas City from Wichita Thursday morning. “The impact that Jackie Robinson still has, it’s unbelievable.”

Lutz said he was heartbroken the morning he realized the statue had been stolen, not only because it was by a dear friend, John Parsons, who is now deceased, but also because it brightened the days of hundreds of kids who played baseball near it.

“It was our sacred place,” he said. “That’s where our teams went after a game, and they gathered and the coach talked to them about the game. So it’s a very important landmark for Wichita, but certainly for our children.”

The nonprofit, founded in 2013, now operates 44 teams with around 600 kids, four fields and an indoor training facility.

Lutz said his organization had saved the sculpture’s original mold, and there are plans for a replacement in the near future.

“It’s in a foundry in Colorado,” Lutz said. “It’ll be finished in July and the hope is to erect it sometime in very early August, and have a ceremony that will be attended by many dignitaries.”

Brothers Al Lustig, of St. Charles, Missouri, and Scott Lustig, of Denver, Colorado, were among Thursday’s visitors to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The pair met in Kansas City as part of an annual tradition.

Al Lustig said witnessing the dedication ceremony with his brother, who is a diehard New York Mets fan, was a surreal moment because their grandfather was a lifelong fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the team Jackie Robinson played for when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. After the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, it was the Mets that replaced them in New York.

“I saw a little tear in his eye during the ceremony, so that was pretty cool,” Al Lustig said of his brother. “Our mother grew up about a mile from Ebbets Field in Brooklyn,” where the Dodgers played.

Kendrick said the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum will add the bronze cleats to an existing display about Robinson. They will reside next to a bullet-scarred plaque that once stood at Robinson’s birthplace, near Cairo, Georgia. The sign joined the museum’s collection after members of the small community discovered it had been vandalized in 2021.

Kendrick said the pair form a sort of “miniature shrine” to show the history of attacks against what Robinson stood for.

“It gives us an opportunity again to tout how important Jackie Robinson was, not only as a baseball player, but as a human being. And hopefully people will learn about him in greater detail,” Kendrick said.

Wichita police have said they do not believe the theft was racially motivated, and that three people destroyed the statue to sell as scrap metal.

Robinson played for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs before Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed him to a Major League Baseball contract. The move opened the door for Black baseballers and changed the landscape of American sports forever.

Robinson’s legacy goes far beyond what he did on the baseball diamond. Kendrick said he was a civil rights icon in his own right before dying at the age 53 on Oct. 24, 1972.

“Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier wasn’t just a part of the civil rights movement — it was the beginning,” he said, “because it absolutely predates those more noted civil rights occurrences.”

“Our very own president, Harry S. Truman, he would not integrate the Armed Forces until a year after Jackie,” Kendrick noted.

Wichita police have arrested and charged one person in the theft: 45-year-old Ricky Alderete. They said other suspects remain at large.

Since the theft, there has been an outpouring of support to replace the Wichita statue, including large donations from Major League Baseball and others.

—  Lawrence Brooks IV reports for Kansas News Service.


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