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.”
Robinson took his status and responsibility seriously. “I learned a long time ago that a person must be true to himself if he is to succeed,” he wrote to young Ronnie.
In the 1950s Robinson was a Republican, largely because the Democratic Party was run by Southerners who resisted civil rights. As the 1960 election approached, he let Ronnie know how he felt about Kennedy, who had voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act.
“I imagine your dad is about ready to get involved in the drive for the presidency,” Robinson wrote. “At this time it looks like Kennedy has a chance, which in my opinion would mean the Democrats would get the smallest Negro vote in the history of the party.”
Dave Rabinovitz had met the Kennedys a few years earlier. He was instrumental in convincing the Massachusetts senator to enter the Wisconsin primary, which then carried much more significance than it does today. He believed that if Kennedy could defeat Hubert Humphrey in the Minnesota senator’s back yard, it would greatly influence the party convention.
As JFK campaigned, young Ronnie was in the thick of it. Kennedy rarely ate the cold dinners on the rubber-chicken banquet circuit.
“He’d say to me, ‘Ronnie, go down to the kitchen and get me the usual.’ The usual was a peanut butter sandwich, a cup of clam chowder and a beer.”
Rabinovitz showed off a letter dated May 23, 1960, from Kennedy to Dave Rabinovitz:
“Please convey my thanks to Ronnie for his superb work in distributing literature and pins as well as for his efforts in furthering my cause in connection with the North High School mock election.”
Making it into a play
Simonson, a born and bred cheesehead from Milwaukee, was a natural choice when Peluso wanted a playwright for the Rabinovitz story. The task, though, was daunting. How do you make drama from a series of correspondence and a brush with political history? Simonson’s first draft didn’t even mention Kennedy, so Peluso pushed him to have another go.
“I thought it was chopping off more than I could chew,” Simonson said. “But Ron said he wanted Kennedy in the story, so I forced myself to find a way.”
His scenario uses two moments in Rabinovitz’s life to make the connection. One is almost factual: Robinson was going to visit the Rabinovitz home, but his schedule prevented it. Nonetheless, bigots vandalized Dave Rabinovitz’s law office with racist graffiti. Simonson used that moment, and imagined that Robinson did in fact make the visit.
The second incident has Kennedy being in the home, and that did happen.
“Once that started to work, it became fun,” Simonson said. “We flipped from one time to another and started telling the story about Kennedy’s relationship with Ronnie and how that related to Jackie.”
The Rabinovitzes did persuade Jackie to meet Jack, but not to much effect. Robinson considered the senator a privileged kid from Massachusetts who sold out to make political gain. But their political differences mattered less to Simonson. The story is about a boy who had an amazing vantage point and a father who made possible this rare experience.
“He was able to watch this critical time in U.S. history come into his living room,” said Peluso.
As for Rabinowitz, it’s clear which man was closest to his heart.
“I admired them both,” he said. “But Jackie Robinson was my friend.”
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299