Jackie Robinson & Rachel Isum

updated 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

With his burly grace he would dance off third, dart and feint, taunting pitchers in his piercing tenor. Then No. 42 would explode toward the plate—"an arrow of dark fire," wrote his friend Roger Kahn. And up in the stands she would be there for him, amid both the cheers and the cries of "Nigger, go home."

"Do you have a girl?" intoned Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodger president, knowing the man he chose to break baseball's color line would need all the support he could get. "Strong, loving, gentle and brave, never afraid to either criticize or comfort," Jack Roosevelt Robinson wrote of Rachel Isum. They met in 1940 at UCLA, where he was a four-sport hero, she a shy nursing student taken with his pride. "Jack," she recalled, "displayed his color by wearing white shirts." They wed in 1946, a year before Jackie launched his Hall of Fame career at Ebbets Field.

Rickey at first ordered him not to retaliate against any racist insult. And so, with epic courage, Robinson (who in the Army in Texas had been court-martialed, then acquitted, for refusing to sit in the back of a bus) ignored epithets, spikings and beanballs. "When they try to destroy me, it's Rachel who keeps me sane," he said.

"She was his sounding board and confessor," remembers Carl Erskine, 69, the splendid Brooklyn pitcher. "She was his anchor." It was a union of contrasts, recalls author Kahn: "Rachel was soft-voiced and restrained, but he could cuss and be caustic." Publicly reserved, the Robinsons nevertheless had a love that was palpable. "I recall the look of pride on her face watching him play while the rest of us were worrying about whether our husbands would do something foolish," says Norma King, wife of Dodger pitcher Clyde King.

Retiring in 1956, Robinson remained a major voice in the civil rights movement. In 1971 the couple lost their eldest of three children, Jackie Jr., 24, who survived Vietnam and beat drug addiction only to die in a car crash. Jackie Sr. followed the next year—just 53, but white-haired and half-blind from diabetes. Since then, the ever-devoted Rachel, 73, has run the Jackie Robinson Foundation, a scholarship program, as keeper of her husband's flame.

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