Police are investigating the destruction of a life-size statue of Jackie Robinson, which was stolen from a park in Wichita, Kansas.
Just after midnight on January 25, vandals entered McAdams Park and cut the statue at its ankles. All that remained was a pair of bronze shoes standing on a base.
A few days later, police received reports of a fire in a trash can at Garvey Park, located roughly seven miles away. When they responded, they found charred pieces of the statue.
In early 2021, League 42, a youth baseball nonprofit in Wichita, unveiled the statue to commemorate the pioneering civil rights leader and professional baseball player. Robinson’s jersey number, 42, is the league’s namesake.
Surveillance footage of the theft shows at least two individuals removing the statue from its pedestal and placing it in the bed of a truck parked nearby. Police have not revealed what tools the thieves used to cut down the statue, per the New York Times’ Aimee Ortiz.
Investigators have interviewed more than 100 people in connection with the crime and have encouraged the perpetrators to come forward. They also located and recovered the truck that was likely used to transport the statue.
“There will be arrests, but we're going to make sure that when we do, we will have a solid case,” says Joe Sullivan, Wichita’s police chief, to Kylie Cameron of KMUW, an NPR member station. “So for those of you who are in any way involved in this … it is only a matter of time. It would be in your best interest that you simply turn yourself in.”
Meanwhile, donations are pouring in to help League 42 eventually erect a new statue. As of Friday, the organization’s GoFundMe campaign had raised more than $180,000. Arrangements for the replacement statue have already started, according to Rachel Hallam of KWCH, a local TV station.
Major League Baseball also vowed to support the statue’s replacement and provide additional funding to League 42, which has roughly 600 players. In addition to baseball, the nonprofit offers after-school education, tutoring and other youth enrichment activities.
Officials have not shared any information about the vandals’ motive.
“If it turns out it was racially motivated, then obviously that is a deeper societal issue, and it certainly would make this a much more concerning theft,” Bob Lutz, executive director of League 42, tells Heather Hollingsworth of the Associated Press (AP). “We’ll wait and see what this turns out to be.”
Born in 1919 in Georgia, Robinson was the first Black athlete to play in modern Major League baseball. In April 1947, he ran out onto the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking baseball’s color barrier in the process.
Throughout his career, Robinson faced racism from fans and fellow athletes in the league. Spectators threw bottles and heckled him, while some players from opposing teams threatened to strike if he took the field. Additionally, Jim Crow laws barred Robinson from staying at the same hotels or eating in the same restaurants as his white teammates.
After retiring from baseball in 1957, Robinson focused his attention on the civil rights movement, appearing with Martin Luther King Jr. and serving as a spokesman for the NAACP. In 1962, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robinson died on October 24, 1972, and he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
“We make every effort to educate our kids about the role that Jackie Robinson played in life and civil rights, his life beyond sports,” Lutz tells the AP. “He’s the absolute best role model you could imagine.”