Ronald "Ron" Rabinovitz might have spent his career as a traveling salesman, but it was his pen pal relationship with baseball legend Jackie Robinson that drew attention.
Rabinovitz, of St. Louis Park, died on April 27 at age 76.
The surprising friendship began when Rabinovitz's father wrote to Robinson — who became the first Black player in the major leagues in 1947 — to say that his son was a big fan. Robinson responded with a note and an autographed picture.
From there a correspondence and a friendship grew.
Rabinovitz grew up in Sheboygan, Wis., and first met Robinson at a Milwaukee Braves home game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1953 when he was 8 years old. Robinson later attended Rabinovitz's 10th birthday party.
The unlikely connection spawned a lifetime of stories for Rabinovitz. He spoke at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was interviewed by Larry King and profiled in USA Today and other media outlets.
Rabinovitz is survived by his daughter Karen Malka, son Jeff Rabinovitz and four grandchildren.
As an adult, he spoke about Robinson at schools, realizing quickly there was lot of work to be done to educate future generations about Robinson's legacy in baseball and beyond, said Jeff Rabinovitz. "He started off and said 'Does anybody know who Jackie Robinson is?' One of the kids in the back raised their hand and said, 'Well, who is she?' "
Robinson was a prolific letter writer who exchanged notes with presidents, civil rights leaders and his own fans.
"This is an extraordinary correspondence from our viewpoint," said Jennifer Jensen, curator of the newly opened Jackie Robinson Museum operated by the New York-based Jackie Robinson Foundation. "I think what's special about Ron's correspondence is that it went beyond just letters. They developed a relationship outside of that."
In 2014, the St. Paul-based History Theatre presented "The Incredible Season of Ronnie Rabinovitz."
"Ron was a sweet man … with a big heart and was an absolute delight to work with to tell his remarkable story," said Ron Peluso, the History Theatre's artistic director, in an e-mail. "The cast loved him."
The Star Tribune profiled Rabinovitz in 2020 when his "Always Jackie" children's book hit the shelves. Publisher's Weekly described it as a "tender personal narrative, perfect for baseball buffs."
"I put down notes about my life and my history with Jackie with the intention of writing a children's book," Rabinovitz told the Star Tribune. "I don't want anyone to ever forget him."
The Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles after the 1957 season, but Rabinovitz stayed a fan for life.
Jeff Rabinovitz recalled that his father would often take him out for an evening drive trying to pick up broadcasts of Dodger games on large, clear-channel radio stations.
"This was before cable TV … At nighttime you could pick up signals," said Jeff Rabinovitz. "We used to do that all the time."
This year marks the 75th anniversary of Robinson's debut in the national league and the 50th anniversary of his death in 1972. Rabinovitz's family directed memorials to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. Services have been held.