It was 1951, and Tania Grossinger was a 13-year-old kid living at Grossinger's Catskill Resort Hotel in New York. The hotel, owned by some of Tania's relatives, was legendary, with a staff of 1,200 catering to thousands of visitors a week.
But one visitor made a lasting impression on her: Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers ballplayer who had broken baseball's color barrier in 1947 and who, with his family, was a frequent guest at the resort.
"Most of the celebrities were Jewish comedians — Buddy Hackett, Joey Bishop, Dick Shawn," recalls Grossinger, a public relations consultant based in Manhattan. "They came up all the time. ... But Jackie was Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson! No explanation needed."
At their first meeting, Grossinger was one of many kids from the hotel introduced to Robinson. When someone told him that she was an excellent pingpong player, he invited her to play later that day. Being just a kid, and him being Jackie Robinson, she didn't take him seriously — until her phone rang and he asked her where she was. He was waiting for their match. They played, and a lifelong bond was created.
Grossinger has turned that meeting and her subsequent friendship with Robinson, which lasted until his death in 1972, into a children's book, "Jackie and Me: A Very Special Friendship" (Sky Pony Press). Aimed at kids ages 5 to 8, it comes out in April, the same month as the new Robinson biographical film, "42."
Here's an edited transcript of our conversation about Robinson and her book.
Q: Kids today are largely unaware of Jackie Robinson and what he accomplished. Maybe even many parents. Do you think this will get his story re-told?
A: I would have hoped their parents would have known (about Robinson). And maybe going through the bookstore, a father or mother would see the cover and would want to pick it up and share their feelings about it, about Jackie.
Q: Were you a big baseball fan?
A: Not especially. I never saw Jackie play. I was in high school; I was in college. I don't even remember trying to go see him. I didn't know how to get from Grossinger's to Ebbetts Field (the Dodgers' ballpark in Brooklyn). So my relationship with him was person-to-person. Maybe (it was special) because our relationship wasn't (about) baseball; I didn't ask about strikes and hits and averages.
Q: On the surface, you didn't have a lot in common.
A: What I felt was like an outsider. He knew what that was like. I was a Grossinger but not a real Grossinger that owned the hotel. I was never able to show feelings, express my feelings or show anger. And later, in retrospect, I realize neither could he (on the field). We didn't talk about that. But he just seemed to get me.
Q: What lessons did you learn from him? Trust? Determination?
A: I would take his letters that he would send — he'd scribble a few lines on a menu, and my mother would mail it to me. When I graduated college, he said he couldn't believe I'd already graduated, that it made him feel like an old man. I'd clip those parts (of the letters) and carry them in my wallet. When I felt insecure, I'd take them out and read them. And I'd get a sense of, if Jackie likes me, there must be something about me.
Q: What message would you hope to get across to kids with the book?
A: Never be ashamed of who you are. That's what makes you so special. ... And also, never give up.
To see a copy of a note Robinson sent Grossinger, go to taniagrossinger.com (click on the "celebs" link).Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun