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‘Handshake for the Century’ will become a lasting tribute

The planning, creation and unveiling of the commemorative Jackie Robinson-George Shuba “Handshake for the Century” statue in downtown Youngstown had been under way and anticipated for many, many months.

Saturday’s unveiling proved it was well worth the wait.

We say that not just because the statue is beautiful; not because its location couldn’t be more perfect; nor because tying its dedication to the annual Summer Festival of the Arts in a new downtown venue created a wonderful connection.

Yes, all that is true, but the statue’s meaning goes so much deeper than the artwork itself, erected in a beautiful setting near the Covelli Centre in the new Raymond John Wean Foundation Park. It’s not all that far away for anyone from Columbiana County, too, wanting to venture north a bit. It would be worth the trip. You don’t have to be a baseball fan to appreciate the significance.

The larger-than-life statue, created by sculpture artist Marc Mellon, commemorates a significant moment not only in baseball history, but in American history.

The inspiring handshake took place April 18, 1946, when Jackie Robinson began his professional baseball career as the first ever African American to play Major League Baseball.

Robinson was beginning play with the Montreal Royals, a minor league affiliate. The 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.

Robinson’s other teammate, George “Shotgun” Shuba, from Youngstown was on deck. Without hesitation, Shuba stepped up to shake Robinson’s hand just as the future Hall of Famer crossed home plate, as is customary in baseball. The moment was captured in a landmark photograph, now owned by Mike Shuba of Youngstown, George’s son, as the first handshake of black and white players on a professional baseball diamond.

Now, Youngstown is the Ohio city to showcase a statue honoring Robinson.

During Saturday’s dedication ceremony, George Shuba’s son, Michael, read words his now-deceased father had once written: “To shake his (Robinson’s) hand after his first hit ever, a home run, was an honor that I will never forget, as that was the day professional baseball changed forever.”

Congratulations are in order to all those involved in this vast undertaking, including the organizers and the steering committee, affectionately referred to as the “bullpen,” the countless donors of both funds and in-kind services, and to the man who first envisioned the statue, Mahoning Valley native and New York bank executive Eric Planey.

It certainly is uplifting to see that so many people here and across our nation gave their time, effort and financial support because of what this statue represents.

Going forward, we are hopeful the statue will serve as an inspiration for open-mindedness, and for good relations among all who live or visit here, regardless of ethnic or racial background. Indeed, we must recognize the rich diversity of our Mahoning Valley for the blessing that it truly is.

“He taught me as a kid if you’re ever put on the spot, just do the right thing and everything will work out,” Michael Shuba told the large, attentive crowd that gathered Saturday morning, despite the light drizzle. “Please remember that we are all teammates in life. We are all on the same team.”

At a time when statues all across our nation are being torn down because of the pain and divisiveness they represent, we all should have an even greater appreciation that the “Handshake for the Century” statue represents racial harmony, equality and respect.

Here, this statue should serve as a starter of respectful conversations about race and history, a topic that so many other communities have avoided.

What a wonderful attitude for our Mahoning Valley to project to the nation and the world!

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