On a grassy field outside Winston-Salem, Little Jackie Robinson is mastering the art of bat retrieval.
She’s also mastering the art of being the center of attention, hopping up and licking at visitors — a ball of energy that wants to be loved.
And plenty of love she’ll get when she makes her debut this summer with the Greensboro Grasshoppers.
“She’s kind of like the athletes who are playing, they get all hyped up too,” says Linwood O’Briant, Little Jackie’s trainer. “She’s a great, outgoing personality. She doesn’t have all her commands down yet. She gets real excited but she runs right up to people, which is a positive sign for us.”
Little Jackie Robinson is the latest in a line of black Labrador retrievers to serve as batdog at First National Bank Field. She follows in the footsteps of her aunt Miss Babe Ruth, uncle Master Yogi Berra, and half-sister Miss Lou Lou Gehrig.
Grasshoppers’ president and general manager Donald Moore introduced the team’s first batdog, Miss Babe Ruth, in 2006. She participated in 649 consecutive home games, picking up bats with her jaws, delivering buckets of baseballs, and running bases. Fiberglass sculptures of Babe and her brother Yogi (who joined the team in 2008) were set up outside the park, and her bucket was donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Lou Lou Gehrig, who is now 7, joined them in 2012. Each dog brought a different personality to the field; Yogi was a “cut-up,” Lou Lou was always very focused, and Babe was a born-entertainer.
“Minor League Baseball is really all about family entertainment. It’s about coming out and having a good time,” Moore says. “The majority of families in America have pets. I was always a dog lover myself and it seemed like a perfect mix to try to incorporate a dog into what we do. Fortunately, we came across Miss Babe Ruth when she was about 8 weeks old. She really knew how to put on a show. The bigger the crowd, the more she got into it. She could feel the excitement.”
Yogi died of cancer in 2017, and Babe passed away the following year, also of cancer. They were 9 and 12, respectively. In a News & Record story last year, Moore talked about bringing Babe to the park one last time before she died.
“When she got on the field, she perked up,” he was quoted as saying in the piece. “It was special. She took one last lap around the bases, obviously with me helping her because she could barely walk on her own.”
Jackie, who celebrated her first birthday on April 5, has been training since October at O’Briant’s facility, Leatherwood Kennels, situated on a 50-acre property that has three ponds, some woods, and rolling grass-covered vistas.
“They’re bred to retrieve, but you have to bring that retrieving desire out of them and get them to enjoy it,” says O’Briant, who has trained all four of the Grasshoppers’ batdogs. “It has to be a fun job; you can’t just make them do it.”
O’Briant starts the dogs on small objects, like tennis balls, before graduating to miniature bats and then on to regular-sized bats. He learned early on to get them used to the rosin players apply to their bats.
The dogs also have to learn how to carry a bucket.
“That’s a bigger challenge than the bat,” O’Briant says. “Just holding the bucket is not a challenge, but they have to learn to go out the tunnel to the umpire.”
O’Briant says Jackie is “really, really smart” and has been fairly easy to work with. She currently weighs in at 46 pounds, and O’Briant says she’ll likely be a little smaller than Babe, who, fully grown, weighed about 70 pounds.
He predicts she’ll be ready to hit the diamond in July.
“When you see them graduate and move on, that’s very gratifying,” he says. “One morning I was watching TV, and all of a sudden saw Lou Lou on ESPN. That was awesome. These dogs being the mascots for Greensboro, well that does my heart good.”