Yankees star is now in step with a football trailblazer

By John Leland

Rod Kennedy Jr. has sold fine china and ceramic animals, written cookbooks and manufactured tin replicas of baseball stadiums. He is the president of the Metropolitan Postcard Club. He once unearthed the blueprints for Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, and tried to have it rebuilt on the waterfront. Until recently, he had never heard of Fritz Pollard.

Yet there Kennedy was during the morning rush hour June 11, boarding a commuter train in Grand Central to induct Pollard into the New Rochelle Walk of Fame, a display Kennedy created with local officials in the Westchester County city a decade ago.

Pollard, who died in 1986, was one of two Black players in the original NFL and the league’s first Black head coach. He went on to run an investment company, own several coal companies and a movie studio, and publish a weekly newspaper in Harlem.

“This guy is the Jackie Robinson of football,” Kennedy, 76, said, emphatically. “And if you asked anyone on this train who Fritz Pollard was, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

New Rochelle’s mayor was expected at the event, as was the county historian and, most notably, the other inductee, the great former New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Plaques for the two men were already in place at Ruby Dee Park, along with another 49 honoring notable city residents, all of them donated and created by Kennedy.

Kennedy, who lived in New Rochelle until he was 10, explained his motivations for creating the Walk of Fame. “I’m a historian,” he said. “Who knows why I do things? I just get excited and do things.”

New Rochelle was an early epicenter of COVID-19 cases on the East Coast, and town officials scheduled this year’s induction ceremony for a weekday morning to limit turnout. The last time the town honored Rivera, at a 2019 parade after he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, thousands of people showed up.

By 11 a.m., as Rivera took a seat near the podium, a few dozen people had gathered on a lawn outside the public library, mostly Yankees fans or people involved with city government.

Sal Bongiorno, a retired ConEd worker in a Rivera T-shirt, carried a baseball and a figurine of Rivera, hoping to get autographs.

“Fingers crossed,” Bongiorno said. He had never heard of Pollard.

A firetruck passed, its siren blaring.

Kennedy frowned at the turnout, but he was excited to be back in New Rochelle. “Mighty Mouse flew out of that building,” he said, pointing to the nearby Kaufman Building, once the home of the Terrytoons animation studio. “It was the tallest building in New Rochelle until Donald Trump built that monstrosity,” he said, not pointing to the 40-story Trump Plaza, which was completed in 2007.

Kennedy attended military school with Trump, but that’s another story. Kennedy has a lot of them. “It’s all in my book,” he said. “I’ll send it to you.”

He had hoped for a bigger ceremony, maybe on a weekend. Why not a marching band? He had composed a march, he told Barbara Davis, a director of the Westchester County Historical Society. “It’s called ‘Di di di di di di,’” he said, because he had not yet written lyrics. He offered to donate the sheet music to the city.

Davis told the crowd about Pollard’s life and career, eliciting applause when she mentioned a 1960s stint coaching the New Rochelle high school football team. Frederick Douglass Pollard, who moved to town in 1961, the same year as actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, had been a star at Brown University and the first Black player in the Rose Bowl. Playing for the Akron Pros in what became the NFL, he had to dress and eat apart from his teammates, and he learned to spin onto his back with his cleats up whenever he was tackled to prevent players from jumping on him.

Pollard’s rival was Jim Thorpe, star of the Canton Bulldogs; his illustrious teammate was Paul Robeson. Their names are legend; his, largely lost.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, Pollard was not a harbinger of immediate sweeping change in his sport. From 1934 to 1946, the NFL had no Black players. It did not have another Black head coach until Art Shell of the Raiders in 1989.

Glenice Reavis, who had come to the New Rochelle event to see Rivera honored, said she was not surprised that she had not heard of Pollard, although she had lived in the city all of her life.

“My grandfather was a manager for the Negro baseball leagues here in New Rochelle, and that’s never been recognized,” Reavis said. “There’s a lot of things that have happened in our community that we’re not made aware of. So this means a lot.”

When it came time to accept his honor, Rivera, who moved to New Rochelle as a young ballplayer, showed why he is considered the greatest closer of all time.

“I fell in love with New Rochelle like it was my hometown, a small fishing village in Panama,” he told the crowd, before mentioning plans for a learning center he wants to open for local children, and for which he is now raising money.

“It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about investing in our future.”

After the ceremony, a public-address system played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the song that filled Yankee Stadium whenever Rivera entered a game. Rivera signed autographs and took photographs with the small group of fans in attendance, and spoke reverently about his fellow honoree, whose name he had first learned that morning.

“Now I know a little bit more about him,” Rivera said, smiling. “I had no one telling me I cannot go to that restaurant, I cannot use that bathroom. He went through all that stuff. I’m proud of people like those, who did what needed to be done for others. For me. He did it for me. So he to me is the Jackie Robinson of football.”

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