In a ceremony on the Treasury steps, officials trumpeted commemorative coins honoring Jackie Robinson, with proceeds going to scholarships for poor inner-city kids.
What they didn’t mention - and what none of the U.S. Mint’s glossy brochures say - is that $1 million, nearly 20 percent of the expected total, will instead help expand the U.S. Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill.
Former Sen. Bennett Johnston, a Louisiana Democrat whose wife, Mary, is a vice chairwoman of The National Fund for the U.S. Botanic Garden, got the money diverted late last session.
Nine months afterward, bitterness lingers.
“We felt the overwhelmingly greater priority was educating young men and women who might not otherwise have the opportunity to attend college,” said Leonard Coleman, baseball’s National League president and Jackie Robinson Foundation chairman.
The developments illustrate the fierce politics surrounding the selection of subjects for the nation’s commemorative coins, pitting worthy cause against worthy cause.
On a recent summer morning, the scene at the Botanic Garden’s glass-walled conservatory is as foreign as can be from the rollicking bleachers of Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field, where Jackie Robinson ran, batted and caught his way into history, breaking baseball’s color barrier a half-century ago.
Classical music tinkles softly. Strolling tourists breathe flower-scented air. Art students strive to capture the play of light on leaf.
The two worlds intersected last October when Congress authorized a $5 gold piece and a silver dollar, both honoring Robinson. Eager to fly home to campaign for re-election, lawmakers approved the bill with little debate. No one mentioned the Botanic Garden would share proceeds with a nonprofit educational foundation established by the ballplayer’s widow, Rachel Robinson.
She said she was shocked by Johnston’s demand but felt she had no choice but to agree or see the legislation killed during the end-of-session crush.
“He was literally taking funds away from us but I felt we had no recourse,” she said. “The million dollars we lost represents 50 endowed scholarships.”
The law provided for 100,000 gold pieces, with a $35 surcharge on each. If they sell out as expected, that would raise $3.5 million for the Robinson foundation, which supported 142 students at 62 schools during the past year.
It also authorized 200,000 silver dollars, with a $10 surcharge, raising $2 million.
Johnston at first sought to block the Robinson coins. He was worried the Robinson dollar would hurt sales of a separate, already authorized silver dollar commemorating the establishment of the garden in 1820.
“There are only so many coins in a certain year they can sell,” he said.
Earlier, Botanic Garden supporters had been forced to defer to Olympic coins, missing the garden’s 175th anniversary by two years. This time Johnston offered a compromise: split the proceeds of the Robinson silver dollar. So, the first $1 million is going to the garden.
To Johnston, the arrangement is more than fair. His wife had spent years working to raise money for the garden with B.A. Bentsen, wife of Lloyd Bentsen, the former senator and Treasury secretary, and Teresa Heinz, wife of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. The Robinson foundation proposed its coin at the 11th hour, he said.
“To say we somehow took advantage of them is just wrong. … We thought up a creative way to help them and they were pleased as punch,” he said. “They said ‘Thank you’ at the time and I hope they’re still grateful.”
U.S. Mint Director Philip Diehl said the agreement protects both programs and will allow the mint to maximize sales.
“It was win, win, win all the way around,” he said.
As it turned out, the Botanic Garden coin also sold strongly this spring, despite the pending July 3 release of the Robinson coins. Through July 10, the mint sold 234,898 coins - 15 percent more than it had projected, raising nearly $2.35 million for the garden.
But few coin and sports memorabilia collectors know about the agreement. Diehl said mint brochures omit mention of the second beneficiary to avoid highlighting the surcharges - a sore point with many collectors.
“They view them as taxes Congress imposes on their hobby,” he said. “We tend to downplay the surcharges. It’s not a marketing plus and it could be a minus.”
And the outdoor garden planned for a tract west of the conservatory, which attracts 600,000 visitors a year, also will be educational, notes Bob Hansen, executive director of the Botanic Garden fund.
“We’ve dubbed it nature’s school yard,” he said. “There will be an environmental learning center … a rose garden, a first lady’s water garden … and a lawn terrace for tented receptions and daily use by the public.”
But Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., chairman of the House monetary policy subcommittee, said the garden, though a worthy cause, should have relied solely on its own coin.
“I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now,” he said.
The sponsors of the Robinson coin bill - Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., and Rep. Floyd Flake, D-N.Y. - said they also were unhappy about the $1 million diversion but had no choice.
“We were placed in a very unfortunate situation,” D’Amato said.