×

Historic handshake statue unveiled; its symbolism runs deep

Jan Strasfeld, retired Youngstown Foundation President, left, and Sally Bany, Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation chair, right, unveil the Robinson-Shuba statue during the dedication ceremony Saturday morning at Wean Park in downtown Youngstown. Staff photo / R. Michael Semple

YOUNGSTOWN — The newly unveiled Robinson-Shuba Commemorative Statue shows the two legendary baseball players frozen in a moment of historic significance, though its underlying meaning, symbolism and message must continue to move forward and endure for the ages, many say.

“It’s important to use the statue as a point of reconciliation, social justice and working together, and to learn about Jackie Robinson,” Penny Wells, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past’s executive director, said. “One person stood up in courage and showed what we all need to do.”

Wells spoke after the unveiling of the much-anticipated 7-foot, 2,000-pound bronze statue in Wean Park, downtown, at which hundreds attended. The monument also is a symbol of the importance of racial harmony and equality.

The event was livestreamed, so no national media representatives appeared to be on hand. It also kicked off the 23rd annual Youngstown State University Summer Festival of the Arts in the park.

The statue, themed “A handshake for the century,” captures the moment after Robinson had hit his first home run — a three-run blast over the left field wall — for the Montreal Royals, a Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, on April 18, 1946, off Jersey City (N.J.) Giants pitcher Warren Sandel. The two men who also scored did not wait at home plate for Robinson.

As he scored, however, Robinson’s white teammate George “Shotgun” Shuba, who was on deck, reached out to congratulate him and shake his hand, which marked the first interracial handshake in modern organized baseball.

“When I crossed home plate, George Shuba was waiting for me. ‘That’s the way to hit that ball, Jackie. That’s the old ballgame right there.’ He shook my hand,” Robinson wrote in his 1948 autobiography, “Jackie Robinson: My Own Story.”

Robinson led the International League that year with a .349 batting average and scored 113 runs for the team, which won the playoffs and the Minor League version of the World Series.

Robinson’s courage in the face of consistent denigration and continual taunts, threats and epithets from teammates and opposing players, fans and even some sportswriters, also was absorbed by the nine black students who integrated the all-white Central High School in September 1957 in Little Rock, Ark., and endured constant harassment, taunts, threats and physical violence throughout most or all of the school year, Wells noted.

“The Little Rock Nine were told they had to be like Jackie Robinson and use him as a role model. They could not fight or speak out, and they had to be nonviolent,” Wells explained. “Six weeks later, Jackie Robinson called seven of the nine and told them, ‘You’re amazing people who had it harder than I did. I at least had a manager; you had no one. I give you my support.'”

“Jackie Robinson opened up opportunities, not just on the ballfield, but in the factories and the boardrooms,” Marc R. Mellon of Connecticut, the project’s sculptor, observed.

Mellon, who called him a “national civil rights advocate,” noted that Robinson’s mission was to use his success to create greater opportunities for people of color. Robinson’s example must be emulated today, as overt racism continues to persist, Mellon said.

“There’s no place for it as we go forward,” he added.

After seeing a feature story of the statue on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Sally Bany of Wilsonville, Ore., realized it was in Youngstown, where her late father, Neal Boyle, had grown up. That was the catalyst for Bany, co-founder of the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation, to donate $175,000 toward the project.

“These stories have to be continually told so we don’t repeat history,” said Bany, whose grandparents opened a sportswear business. “You have to keep teaching each generation to be kind to each other. We’re all humans.”

For Shuba, the groundbreaking moment that changed Major League Baseball 75 years ago was neither an opportunity to grab the limelight nor to promote himself. Instead, he saw the gesture as merely the right and natural thing to do, Herb Washington, a statue project committee co-chairman, said.

“Seventy-five years later, equality is still evasive,” Washington observed, adding he hopes the statue and surrounding site will be a focal point to discuss racial equality and inclusion.

Shuba’s son, Mike Shuba of Austintown, told gatherers that his father’s legacy has left an indelible imprint on his life. Fighting back tears, the younger Shuba said his father “taught me that when you’re on the spot, just do the right thing and everything will be fine.”

George Shuba, who attended Chaney High School, played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 to 1955 and in two World Series, including in 1955, which the team won. He acquired the nickname “Shotgun” in 1945 for his ability to spray line drives over all parts of the field.

After his baseball career, Shuba worked many years for the U.S. Postal Service before he died in 2014 at age 89.

Mike Shuba continues to travel the country and give posters of the handshake to children to promote the importance of equality, tolerance and kindness.

“Please remember, we are all teammates in life. We are all on the same team,” he said.

Echoing that sentiment was city Councilman Julius Oliver, D-1st Ward, who accepted the gift on behalf of the city.

Also during the ceremony, Mayor Jamael Tito Brown handed Beny a key to the city and a proclamation to thank her foundation for the donation.

“You tuned into your heart and you listened,” the mayor said.

Youngstown State University President Jim Tressel urged attendees to build “a vivid recall of past successes” in the city and refrain from lamenting about what has been lost. It’s vital to establish a legacy of the region’s successes and learn what it takes to develop a championship team, Tressel said.

Making additional remarks about the statue’s deep symbolism, including showing respect for all people, were committee co-chairmen Ernie Brown and Eric Planey of New Hamburg, N.Y., formerly of Youngstown, who consulted with Oliver and Louis A. Zona, the Butler Institute of American Art’s executive director.

“Shuba is one of the greatest examples of what a teammate is,” Planey said.

The event also featured music by Chuck Brodsky of Asheville, N.C., who sang a song he wrote, titled “The Handshake.”

news@vindy.com

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
   

COMMENTS

Starting at $4.39/week.

Subscribe Today