Jackie Robinson isn’t the only player from Cairo, Ga., to play Major League Baseball. Cubs third-base coach Willie Harris is from the area, and he is well aware of Robinson’s legacy.
Harris, 43, said Robinson is the reason he was able to have a 12-year playing career, mostly with the White Sox and Nationals, and has a dream of one day becoming a Major League manager.
The dream Robinson gave to many African Americans like Harris started on April 15, 1947, when Robinson became the first African American to break the color barrier and play in the Major Leagues, where his skill made him one of the best to play the game.
Robinson was a stellar defender and had dazzling speed and a bat that helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win six pennants and one World Series title during his 10 years in MLB. His impact was felt right away, as evidenced by his 1947 National League Rookie of the Year Award and the ’49 NL MVP Award just two years later.
“He is the reason my dreams came true,” Harris said via telephone. “I tell people all the time that I wasn’t the best baseball player. You look at guys like Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Eric Davis — I can go on and on — those guys were great ballplayers. But neither one of those guys can say they are from Cairo, Ga. I’m the only one who could say that.
“I know Jackie didn’t grow up in Cairo. I know he didn’t play high school ball or anything there, but that’s where his roots are and that’s where I’m from as well.”
Cairo, Ga., drew national attention a couple of months ago when MLB and the Georgia Historical Society rededicated two markers honoring where Robinson was born. The marker at Robinson’s birthplace (County Route 154 in Cairo) was replaced after the original was vandalized by gunfire last year, and a new, duplicate historical marker is located at the Roddenbery Memorial Library in downtown Cairo.
On Oct. 15, 1972, almost six years before Harris was born, Robinson made his last public appearance before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series between the Reds and A’s in Cincinnati. Major League Baseball was celebrating the 25th anniversary of Robinson’s Major League debut.
Besides thanking then-Dodgers president Branch Rickey and teammate Pee Wee Reese for helping him succeed in the big leagues, Robinson told the crowd of 53,244 that he wanted to see a Black face at the third-base coaching lines managing in baseball.
Since Robinson’s passing two weeks after that appearance, MLB teams have hired a handful of African American managers, starting with Frank Robinson in 1975. Robinson (1989, AL), Dusty Baker (1993, 1997, 2000; NL) and Don Baylor (1995, NL) have been awarded the Manager of the Year trophy.
Harris hopes to one day fulfill Jackie Robinson’s dream of becoming a big league manager. Before joining the Cubs last year, Harris had coaching experience, having managed Class A Winston Salem (White Sox) and Double-A Richmond (Giants) before becoming the baserunning and outfield coordinator for the Reds in 2020.
“Knowing what Robinson went through — withstanding the battles that he fought — he was able to say [what he said in 1972] freely. That says a lot about his character,” Harris said. “To hear him say he wants to see an African American coaching third base, guess what? I’m an African American coaching third base for the Chicago Cubs. It’s another thing Jackie Robinson wanted to see. I’m grateful for that.”
Harris said he wants to become a manager because he earned that opportunity to lead a roster full of Major Leaguers.
“I want to be hired off of merits,” Harris said. “I don’t want to be given an opportunity because I’m African American. I definitely don’t want that. I want to have that opportunity because I earned that opportunity. I’m not looking for a handout. I want it to be pure. I want it to be for me — ‘You earned it.'”