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Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn Was Jackie Robinson's 'No. 1 Fan'09:33Download

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Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn grew up idolizing Jackie Robinson. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The entryway to Ray Flynn’s house in South Boston is lined with photographs. As the former mayor of Boston and former ambassador to the Vatican, Flynn has met some amazing people.

There’s a photo of Flynn with Mother Teresa, whom he calls, “my good friend” and another with Nelson Mandela. Flynn visited him in a South African prison … three times.

Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. (Sean Kardon/AP)
Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. (Sean Kardon/AP)

But the photograph that’s missing -- the one he’d really like to have -- was never taken. That’s because, during the late 1940s Flynn couldn’t afford a camera –-- or the cost of developing film.

Ray Flynn was a 10-year-old sports fan the first time he met Jackie Robinson.

"All I ever wanted — I can say it now, I'm not running for political office — but all I ever wanted to be was to play for the Celtics or for the Red Sox. Not be mayor," he says.

Flynn says he probably should have played shortstop, because he had a good throwing arm. But he played second base, because that was the position Jackie Robinson played.

'I Wanted To Get The Best Player's Autograph'

Flynn grew up Irish Catholic in South Boston. Jackie Robinson was, of course, an African American who grew up in Southern California. But, Flynn says, he and his hero had more than just baseball in common.

Robinson’s father left when he was a baby. Flynn was growing up without his father, too. Stephen Flynn was a dock worker who got sick on the job. He ended up in the hospital – for five years.

"A lot of longshoremen got hurt or sick. There was all kinds of tuberculosis and problems like that. My mother cleaned office buildings at night. So even when I was 10 years old, I had to go out and hustle and try to make a few dollars. And try to help my mother out as best as I could," Flynn says.

Flynn shined shoes. He sold newspapers. Sometimes, after selling papers at the ballparks – Boston had two major league teams back then – Flynn would stick around to ask for autographs. The city’s National League team, the Boston Braves, played just a mile up the road from Fenway Park.

"I recall, very vividly, standing outside the visitors' locker room at Braves Field, as opposed to the home team locker room where all the young kids from Roxbury, Southie, Charlestown, Brighton all wanted to get the Braves autographs. I wanted to get the best player's autograph," he says.

And the very best player, at least in the eyes of 10-year-old Ray Flynn, was Jackie Robinson.

"So, he comes out of the locker room. And I saw him, and I went up to him, and I says, 'Mr. Robinson,' I said, 'Can I have your autograph?' And he looks at me, and he says, 'Sure.' So he signs the autograph book for me. And I said, 'Mr. Robinson, could I carry your bag?' He looks at me, hesitantly, and he said, 'Sure, take the bag.' So he gave me the bag. I was barely able to carry it, I was so young. I carry the bag up to the taxi stand on the main street. He gets in the taxi. He puts his hand in his pocket and takes out some money. And he says, 'Here, kid. Thanks for carrying my bag.' And I says, 'Oh, Mr. Robinson,' I says, 'I don't want any money.' I said, 'It was a really honor, you know, to carry your bag. This kid from South Boston, here.' He looks at me and then he says, 'Well, I'll see you again.' And I says, 'OK, Mr. Robinson.' And off he goes to the hotel.

"You know, I went home and I told my brother, my older brother. And he says, 'You mean to say he offered you money and you didn't take it? Wow,' he says, 'I would have taken the money,'" Flynn says.

Flynn knew his family could use the cash. But, he says, letting Jackie Robinson know that he had a fan in Boston was more important.

"Nobody told us to go to college. Nobody told us that we could play Major League sports. Nobody told us that we could be successful. Nobody ever told us that we could achieve anything. And that's what Jackie Robinson did, he used to inspire young people to do things that they probably didn't think they could do."

Ray Flynn

"Well, about two weeks later the Dodgers are back in town again, the Brooklyn Dodgers are back in town again playing the Braves," Flynn says. "Here I am, in the same location, the same situation. About 30-40 kids from Boston are all waiting outside the Braves locker room to get the Braves autograph, and I'm there with Jackie Robinson. He looks at me, he says, 'You already got my autograph.' I says, 'Yeah, I got your autograph.' I said, 'Mr. Robinson, can I carry your bag again?' It would seem like he would always come out of the locker room. And he'd kinda look around, and he'd see me there. We used to talk back and forth, but he just had this instinct of saying the right thing. He knew how I was dressed, I wasn't — I didn't have expensive clothes, just shabby dungarees and an old sweatshirt. He could tell that there wasn't much money there. But he would just give these words of encouragement."

Flynn learned everything he could about Robinson’s life. Not just the statistics, which he can still rattle off, but also about Robinson’s time before Major League Baseball. Graduating from UCLA. Serving as an officer in the Army. Flynn even studied Robinson’s family.

"I mean, I knew the whole story about Jackie Robinson, A to Z," he says. "And every time I had the chance of walking with him up to the taxi stand, I'd always bring up some kind of little fact or statistic that would really surprise him, you know, like, how I knew all that. I said to him one time, I said, 'Your brother ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with Jesse Owens, the great Jesse Owens.' I said, 'In the stands was Adolph Hitler.' And he says to me, 'How old are you?' I says, 'I'm 10 years old.' He said, 'How do you know all this?' And he says, 'I hope you’re as smart in math and English as you are about Jackie Robinson's background and history in sports.'"

The walk from the visitors' clubhouse to the taxi stand on Commonwealth Avenue didn’t take long. It couldn’t have been more than a block or two. But between those brief encounters and the things he read about Robinson in the papers he sold, Flynn came to realize just how much adversity Robinson had overcome. And he came to realize that he could overcome his circumstances, too.

"Nobody told us to go to college," Flynn says. "Nobody told us that we could play Major League sports. Nobody told us that we could be successful. Nobody ever told us that we could achieve anything. And that's what Jackie Robinson did. He used to inspire young people to do things that they probably didn't think they could do."

Ray Flynn became a very good college basketball player. He even made it briefly onto the Boston Celtics roster but was cut before the season began.

Once it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it as an athlete, Flynn decided his life’s work would be to help kids – kids who were poor, like he had been. First he was a coach. Then, in 1971, he became a state representative. That’s when he met Jackie Robinson again.

"Just as I was starting to come up, Jackie was starting to fail," he says.

Jackie Robinson had diabetes. By the end, he was almost blind and had trouble walking.

Flynn was friendly with the mayor of New York, so he asked for a favor: Could you call Jackie Robinson and see if he’d be up for a visit from a politician from South Boston? Robinson said yes.

"I've worked with popes, presidents and prime ministers and I knew two saints -- personal friends of two saints. But I learned more, more about life from Jackie Robinson than I did from any politician that I ever met."

Ray Flynn

Reunited With His Hero

"So I hopped on the train. I went down to New York," Flynn says. "There was a police officer with me, showed me the way. And I went in and I saw Jackie Robinson. Invited me right in, he and his wife. He made us sandwiches and we, we sat and talked. And he said, 'Why are you so interested in wanting to talk to me? You know, you were kinda young when I was at my heyday.' So, I says, 'Mr. Robinson,' I says, 'Um.' He says, 'Stop. You're gonna start calling me Jackie now.' I says, 'OK.' I says, 'I was the little kid that was waiting outside the visitor’s locker room at Braves Field.'"

“Unbelievable,” Flynn remembers Jackie Robinson saying. “You’re my No. 1 fan.”

Flynn isn’t sure Robinson actually remembered him. How could he? He must have met so many kids over the years.

They talked over the phone a few times after that, but they never again met in person. Robinson died in 1972.

Ray Flynn went on to become a city councilor, then mayor in 1983. In 1993, Flynn left Boston to become the ambassador to the Vatican. That’s where he became close with Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa.

Flynn lives a quieter life now. He takes care of his grandson, who’s disabled. Together, they explore the city.

And, whenever he gets the chance, Flynn talks about meeting Jackie Robinson. He says it’s a story kids today need to hear.

"I've worked with popes, presidents and prime ministers and I knew two saints — personal friends of two saints. But I learned more, more about life from Jackie Robinson than I learned from any politician that I ever met," Flynn says.

This segment aired on April 15, 2017.

Karen Given Twitter Senior Producer, Only A Game
Karen is a senior producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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