The New York Yankees announced Monday that they plan to honor former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 last week, with a plaque at Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, where a plaque recognizing the anti-apartheid leader will sit next to those honoring former Yankee greats like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Mandela spoke at the old Yankee Stadium, which was torn down in 2012, shortly after he was released from a South African prison. During the speech, he donned a Yankees cap and jacket and declared, “I am a Yankee!”
The Yanks plan to memorialize the plaque on Major League Baseball’s annual Jackie Robinson Day, April 15, when they play the Chicago Cubs. Mandela won’t be the only non-baseball member of Monument Park — in addition to a 9/11 memorial, the Yankees also have plaques noting appearances by Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, all of whom conducted masses at the stadium.
According to the New York Times, the idea to include Mandela came from the Service Employees International Union’s Local 32BJ, which covers the New York area.
While it may seem odd to honor Mandela in a baseball setting, it’s a touching tribute to a man who viewed all sorts of cultural forms as vehicles to foster unity among different populations. Sports were no different. South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup shortly after Mandela became president in 1994, and though the sport was viewed mainly as a symbol of white oppression in his home country, Mandela embraced the games before the home team, colloquially known as the Springboks, appeared in the final against a vaunted New Zealand side. When Mandela appeared on the pitch alongside the South African team, the crowd, mostly white, erupted in cheers of “Nelson! Nelson!” in one of the first major displays of support for their new black president. After South Africa beat New Zealand to claim the title, black and white South Africans alike “sang and danced into the night, united for the first time in its history around one cause, one delirious celebration,” Sports Illustrated’s John Carlin recounted in 2008.
“Sport has the power to change the world,” Mandela said before. “It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”
Mandela’s visit to New York nearly a quarter-century ago was a major moment for the city, for the man, and for the causes he supported, and through his charity organizations, he continued to use sports to improve lives and create unity among peoples until the day he died. There are plenty of ways in which we could and should honor Mandela’s legacy in the United States. Because of his appearance there and the importance he placed on sports, Yankee Stadium seems a fine place to start.