YOUNGSTOWN — A larger-than-life statue commemorating the 1946 handshake of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American Major League Baseball player, and George "Shotgun" Shuba, his white teammate from Youngstown, will inspire better relations among people of different racial backgrounds, say leaders of a group planning to build the statue in downtown Youngstown.
The Economic Action Group, a downtown development advocate, and the newly formed Robinson-Shuba Commemorative Statue Committee aim to raise $400,000 to complete the statue and dedicate it April 18, 2021, the 75th anniversary of what some have called "the handshake of the century" after Robinson's first home run in mainstream professional baseball.
"A handshake at home plate by players of different races is no big deal in America today, but in 1946 it was a historic moment," Herb Washington, a local businessman, former Major League Baseball player and one of the co-chairmen of the committee, said in a news release. "We want to memorialize that moment in a way that inspires people to relate more respectfully to those of other races. We need more Americans to follow the examples of Jackie Robinson and George Shuba."
Another committee member, Patty Brozik, a retired Community Foundation of the Mahoning Valley president and banker, said the statue could put Youngstown in the national spotlight. "Jackie Robinson fought through incredible hate and adversity throughout his career yet became one of the greatest baseball players the game has ever known," she said. "George's handshake demonstrated respect for Jackie's achievements and showed the world what things could be like without barriers based on race. We’re confident that many in the Mahoning Valley will want to join us in supporting this effort."
The committee is pursuing grants from local foundations and donations from the public at its website, robinsonshuba.org.
The bronze statue would portray the handshake as captured in a landmark photograph now owned by Mike Shuba of Youngstown, George's son. Both players would stand nearly 7 feet tall in bronze at a site in Wean Park near the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre, where they would enjoy high visibility.
Robinson enjoyed a Hall of Fame career with Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, but he played previously with the Dodgers' minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, after a stint in the Negro Leagues. Robinson's first game with the Royals was a major media event in New Jersey against the Jersey City Giants, with a huge crowd in the stands and the city's schools ordered closed to mark the occasion.
In his second at-bat, with two other Royals on base, Robinson hit a home run. Both teammates who scored on the homer went into the dugout without waiting for Robinson to congratulate him.
Shuba, who was on deck, noticed that, so he stepped up to shake Robinson's hand just as the future Hall of Famer was crossing home plate. The photo captured that moment — the first handshake of black and white players on a professional baseball diamond.
"In our book, George is quoted as saying he didn't think at the time that shaking a black player's hand was a big deal," said Greg Gulas, a retired Youngstown State University sports information director and another committee co-chairman. "He had played with black and white guys at Chaney High School and in sandlot games in Youngstown for years. He shook Jackie's hand because he had just hit a three-run homer. George was proud to be Jackie's teammate for the Royals and the Dodgers, not because Jackie was black but because he was an incredible baseball player."
Ernie Brown, a former Vindicator regional editor and another committee co-chairman, said, "The fact that George stepped up after his teammates ignored Jackie's achievement suggests that Youngstown was a little ahead of the game when it came to putting racial differences aside. That is the vision of Youngstown for many, and this statue will remind Mahoning Valley residents and visitors about that vision."
A national story
The 1946 handshake drew additional waves of national news coverage in 1996, its 50th anniversary, and in 2014, when George Shuba passed away. A 2014 New York Times story called the handshake “a simple, silent moment in baseball history.” MSNBC commentator Al Sharpton said George Shuba will “always be remembered for how he took the fight against racial injustice into his own hands with that handshake."
Mike Shuba, who serves as a special adviser to the committee, said the framed picture of the handshake graced the living room of the family's home since he was a child and was the only piece of baseball memorabilia his father ever displayed. George Shuba earned the nickname "Shotgun" because he reliably hit line drives with his consistent, compact swing.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, Mike and his father toured schools and youth centers across the United States to talk about the handshake and racial relations in sports.
“If my father were still around, he would be so thrilled and so proud,” Mike said. “That handshake with Jackie and the photo of it were among the highlights of his life.”
About the sculptor
Marc Mellon, a Connecticut sculptor who has crafted dozens of high-profile bronze works, including those honoring Pope John Paul II, President George H. W. Bush, President Barack Obama and athletes Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Arthur Ashe and Cal Ripken, has agreed to build the Robinson-Shuba statue and also has been serving as a special adviser to the committee. He recently completed an early study of the statue.
In addition to Washington, Gulas, Brown, Brozik and Mellon, the committee includes:
- Eric Planey, New York finance executive, former regional chamber vice president and Youngstown native.
- Bergen Giordani, former regional chamber and Rich Center for Autism events director and owner of One Hot Cookie stores in Youngstown and Boardman.
- Julius Oliver, Youngstown 1st Ward councilman and owner of Kingly Car Wash.
- Tony Paglia, former regional chamber vice president and former Vindicator senior regional editor.
- The Rev. Robin Woodberry, assistant pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church.
- Tim Callion, business manager for Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 396.
- Joe Schiavoni, former Ohio state senator and attorney at Schiavoni Law Firm.
- Nick Chretien, program manager, Economic Action Group.
The project committee also is forming a national honorary committee of individuals with national networks who have ties to Robinson, Shuba and/or the Mahoning Valley.
Pecchia Communications, a public relations firm in Canfield, is supporting the project on a pro bono basis.