Ronnie Rabinovitz’s childhood experiences make for a most rare story, one he’ll watch play out on the History Theatre stage.
The list of children who became pen pals with a legendary athlete is probably short. A tally of kids who were visited in their home by not one but two Kennedys is likewise slim.
How amazing is it, then, that the name of Ron Rabinovitz would appear on both. Growing up in Sheboygan, Wis., Rabinovitz corresponded with Jackie Robinson in the 1950s and became the ballplayer’s friend. And when Sen. John Kennedy campaigned in the 1960 Wisconsin primary, 15-year-old Ronnie was there to run errands.
“Here’s this little kid from Sheboygan, and these two men are in his life,” said Ron Peluso, artistic director of the History Theatre. “You’ve got to write a play about that.”
Peluso commissioned Eric Simonson (“Lombardi,” “Bronx Bombers”) to write “The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz,” which opens Saturday night at the St. Paul theater. The play attempts to dramatize a story that would seem implausible as fiction. It features Ansa Akyea as Robinson — a character he also portrayed last spring in Children’s Theatre’s “Jackie and Me” — Peter Middlecamp as Kennedy, Jack Alexander as Ronnie and Mark Benninghofen as his father, Dave Rabinovitz.
Rabinovitz, now a 68-year-old sales representative who lives in Edina, still seems a little stunned by the course of events that made him a witness to history.
“All this is because of my father,” he said recently as he led a reporter on a tour of his memorabilia. “This play is a way to honor my parents — my dad.”
An abiding friendship
Dave Rabinovitz was a lawyer who worked for progressive causes in Sheboygan, now a city of 50,000 that claims to be the bratwurst capital of the world.
He also loved the Brooklyn Dodgers, particularly after they broke the color barrier with Robinson in 1947. He wrote to Robinson about his admiration and the ballplayer invited the Rabinovitzes to visit when Dodgers played the Braves in Milwaukee.
“He hit two doubles and a single and stole a base that day,” Ron Rabinovitz recalls. For reasons he still doesn’t fully understand, Robinson befriended him. For the next several years, they traded letters full of warmth, personal detail, politics and a sense of mentorship.
“I am glad to hear you lost some weight, Ronnie,” Robinson wrote to his young friend. “It works too much of a hardship on a person when he carries too much so keep it up. I know it will make you feel much better.”
Robinson went to dinner with the family at a Milwaukee restaurant for Ronnie’s 10th birthday in 1955. (Rabinovitz has the menu with Robinson’s signature on the back.) Ronnie invited Robinson to his bar mitzvah (Robinson couldn’t make it, but sent a nice note) and, when he graduated from high school, Robinson sent a telegram of congratulations.
Even after retiring in 1957, Robinson nurtured his relationship with this Wisconsin kid.
“Ronnie, one of the things that pleases me most is our friendship continues even though I am no longer connected with baseball,” Robinson wrote on stationery for Chock full o’Nuts coffee company, where he was an executive. “It is friends like you that make me feel everything that happened was worthwhile.”
The two men stayed in touch through the 1960s. Rabinovitz last saw his hero at lunch about six months before Robinson died in 1972 at age 53. Robinson had diabetes and heart disease and by that point was blind in one eye.
“I helped him into a cab and kissed him on the cheek and told him I loved him,” Rabinovitz recalled. “I knew that would be the last time I saw him.”
A brush with the Kennedys
When Martin Luther King was called a pioneer of the civil rights movement, he often demurred and said, “No, Jackie Robinson was.”