Most weeks, at least one local schoolteacher tries to schedule a class trip to the Jackie Robinson Museum. The teachers typically contact the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the museum’s parent organization, after seeing the large signs advertising the museum in the street-level windows of One Hudson Square, an office building in Soho. It’s easy to see why they would want to take their class to see exhibits and artifacts celebrating the life of one of the icons of the civil rights struggle, whether on Jackie Robinson Day — celebrated every April 15 — or any other day of the year. But the Jackie Robinson Museum is not accepting visitors — after more than five years of promotion and slipping timetables, the facility has yet to open its doors.
When plans for the museum were first announced in 2007, the Jackie Robinson Foundation set out to raise $25 million to cover construction and opening costs. But fund-raising proved difficult, especially during the recession, and the opening date was pushed back multiple times. At one point, the large, powder-blue sign at One Hudson Square, located at the busy intersection of Canal and Varick streets, said the museum would open in 2010. Later, it promised a 2014 opening. Things got so bad that fund-raising efforts were put on hold for a couple of years.
The museum will occupy 18,500 square feet on parts of two floors of One Hudson Square, which also houses the Jackie Robinson Foundation. It will feature two galleries, a 75-seat theater, and interactive stations for visitors. Tax records show the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded in 1973 with a focus on scholarships and educational programs for underprivileged students of color, has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on rent and maintenance — among other costs — for the museum. In fiscal 2014, the total tab was $588,280. (Some of the costs are offset by occasionally renting out the space. For instance, Nike used it during NBA All-Star Weekend.)
But despite the rocky history, Della Britton Baeza, the president and CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, says that she expects the museum will finally open its doors in the spring of 2017. “We’re at the point now where we’re really zeroing in on the last several million, and we have solid asks out. I’m feeling good about it,” she says. “I’m really excited.”
To date, the foundation has raised $18 million of the $25 million goal. Nike has been the largest donor, with a $2.5 million contribution toward the museum. The Yawkey Foundation — founded by the late Jean Yawkey, former owner of the Red Sox — has donated $2 million towards the facility’s construction, and Joe Plumeri, the former CEO of Citibank North America and the foundation’s campaign chair, donated $2 million. Three big-league teams have contributed as well: The Mets have given $1.5 million, the Dodgers $1.25 million, and the Yankees $1 million.
A big reason for Baeza’s optimism, though, is who hasn’t given yet — namely, Major League Baseball.
As Baeza explains, the foundation hasn’t formally asked the league for a donation to the museum, even though MLB has long been a contributor to its other programs. In part, that’s because she’s been waiting for others to contribute so she can show the league how much they’ve already done, and ask them to become the new highest donor.
But Baeza says she was also waiting for MLB’s new commissioner, Rob Manfred, to succeed Bud Selig.
“Bud had done so much with Jackie Robinson Day and retiring Jackie’s number,” she says. “That was all under Bud’s legacy. But I said to myself, I think I can get more under a new administration, because maybe this could be Rob’s legacy.”
Baeza says she’s spoken informally to Manfred several times, and that he’s said the league will indeed contribute. She says that she has a dollar figure in mind for when she formally asks for money later this year.
For its part, the league declined to comment on how much it is prepared to give. Said a spokesperson in a statement: “Major League Baseball has supported the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the legacy of Jackie Robinson in many ways through the years including making donations and partnering on fund raising efforts. We have committed to supporting the Museum but we don’t discuss contribution details.”
Baeza says the foundation is also reaching out to other “wealthy individuals,” and that while she prefers a range of donors so the museum isn’t beholden to any one in particular, she expects Manfred to step up. In fact, she’s counting on it. “We want to say to them, ‘Look, it’s getting done. And you need to come in and be the hero,’” she says.
She also thinks the timing is right for donors to support the cause.
“In this age,” she says, “where racism and racial issues and issues of intolerance generally are very much on the American agenda, what better place to address those?”