Jackie Robinson is rebuilt in bronze in Colorado after theft of statue from Kansas park

David Hobbs, an employee at Art Castings of Colorado, touches up a wax mold of Jackie Robinson's head in Loveland, Colo. on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. The original statue was cut off at the ankles and stolen from a park in Wichita, Kansas in January. The Colorado foundry cast that sculpture in 2019 and, luckily, still had the original plaster and rubber molds. (Thomas Peipert/AP)

LOVELAND, Colo. — As he coats a mould of Jackie Robinson with wax, metalsmith Alex Haines reflects on the extra importance of a project that will soon give the city of Wichita, Kansas, a replacement bronze statue of the baseball icon after thieves brazenly destroyed the original.

“Many sculptures come through here,” said Haines at the Art Castings studio in Loveland, Colorado, where the original statue was cast. “Some are a little bit more important than others. And this is definitely one of them.”

It all started in January, when thieves cut the original statue off at its ankles , leaving only Robinson’s cleats behind at McAdams Park in Wichita. About 600 children play there in a youth baseball league called League 42. It is named after Robinson’s uniform number with the Brooklyn Dodgers, with whom he broke the major league’s colour barrier in 1947.

The news spread wide, and a national outpouring of donations followed that enabled Wichita to quickly reorder a replacement.

“There’s been a lot of serendipity when it comes to League 42 throughout our entire existence,” said Bob Lutz, who is executive director of the Little League nonprofit that commissioned the statue. “It’s almost like there’s somebody watching out for us. And certainly, in this regard, we feel like … there was a guardian angel making sure that we could do this statue again.”

As news spread of the theft, the nonprofit was flooded with an estimated $450,000 to $500,000 in donations. That includes a $100,000 gift from Major League Baseball, which will cover the statue’s $45,000 replacement cost and other improvements, including landscaping and adding decorative bollards that will keep people from driving too close to the statue.

The rest of the money raised will go toward enhancing some of the nonprofit’s programming and facilities. Last year, the group opened the Leslie Rudd Learning Center, which includes an indoor baseball facility and a learning lab. There might even be enough money to add artificial turf and more lighting, Lutz said.

Another blessing for Lutz is that the replacement will look exactly like the original, which was created by his friend, the artist John Parsons, before his death in 2022 at the age of 67. That is possible because the original mould was still viable.

“If that wasn’t the case, I don’t know that I would feel as good about all this as I do,” Lutz said.

It looked dire five days after the theft, when fire crews found burned remnants of his statue while responding to a trash can fire at another park about 7 miles (11 kilometers) away from the scene of the theft.

One man has pleaded guilty, and the investigation continues into a crime that police have said was motivated not by racial animus but by plans to sell the bronze for scrap.

It was a stupid plan, said Tony Workman, owner of Art Castings of Colorado. The town where the business is located, around 50 miles (80 kilometres) north of Denver, is well known for its abundance of sculptors and artists.

“The problem is you can’t get a fire in a dumpster hot enough to melt metal,” Workman said. “All you’re gonna do is burn the sculpture. So you’re still going to be able to tell what it was.”

Beyond rebuilding the statue, the severed bronze cleats from the original statue found a new home last month at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

It is a fitting location. Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, paving the way for generations of Black American ballplayers. He is considered not only a sports legend but also a civil rights icon. Robinson died in 1972.

“The outpouring of support that folks have gotten as a result of this, it reminds us that light indeed does come out of darkness,” said Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

At the museum, the cleats are part of a display that also includes a gunfire-riddled plaque that had been erected outside Robinson’s birthplace near Cairo, Georgia.

“It renews our spirit and belief in people because sometimes people will do despicable things, and it makes you want to give up on people,” Kendrick said. “But you know you can’t give up on people, even though sometimes you want to.”

On a recent morning, Emilio Estevez, a financial services worker from Miami, stopped to look at the cleats. He described Robinson as an inspiration — both because of his athleticism and his ability to put up with jeers while integrating the sport.

“We can all learn from that,” he said.

And the thieves couldn’t take that away, Estevez said.

“He’s still in all our minds. He’s still very present, like here in the museum, very prevalent,” he said.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.