On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the major leagues when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers at first base against the Boston Braves. Friday is the 64th anniversary of that momentous occasion, perhaps the most important in sports history.
Baseball has always made sure to honor its history. No other sport really even comes close. And the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport's color barrier is no exception. Robinson's number 42 was retired throughout baseball in 1997 (those allowed to wear it now, such as the New York Yankees' Mariano Rivera, wore the number before the honor was instituted), only to take the field once again every April 15.
MLB.com opened a website, iam42.com, in which dozens of players and celebrities discuss Robinson's meaning to them. Everyone in a major league uniform - players, managers and coaches - will wear Robinson's No. 42 jersey at the ballpark when they take the field on Friday. (Here's an article explaining how Robinson ended up with that particular number.)
The tradition began four years ago, initially proposed to Commissioner Bud Selig by Ken Griffey, Jr., who was playing for the Cincinnati Reds at the time. Griffey's original idea was to wear No. 42 himself, but Selig liked the concept so much that he thought any player and every team should be allowed to do the same thing.
Originally, just a handful of players were to wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. In 2007, six Detroit Tigers - Gary Sheffield, Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames, Pudge Rodriguez, Lloyd McClendon, and Curtis Granderson - wore Robinson's number on their jersey. But some teams outfitted their entire squad with No. 42, and since then, virtually every club has followed that example.
(Several players, such as Torii Hunter and CC Sabathia, have spoken out against the practice, saying it waters down the significance of the gesture.)
Four years ago, I wrote about this celebration of Robinson at Bless You Boys and reminisced about a term paper I wrote in high school on the Negro Leagues and Robinson becoming the first of his peers to break through into the majors. I don't think I can write it any better now than I did then, so I hope you'll indulge me this blockquote:
For a 17-year-old kid, it was astounding to read about the abuse [Robinson] endured from spectators, other players, and even his own teammates. And the idea that black athletes weren't allowed to play baseball was a completely foreign concept to me. I couldn't imagine a sport that wouldn't have included so many players I admired, such as Lou Whitaker, Kirby Puckett, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, and Dwight Gooden. But a key part of the assignment was to focus upon a pivotal event for your chosen subject. And in my paper, that meant writing about Jackie Robinson being the first black man to play in the major leagues.
Even now, soon to be 34, I still have difficulty comprehending Robinson's struggle to merely play a game that seems so easily accessible to anyone nowadays. How many times did he ask himself whether or not it was worth taking all those insults and attacks? How hard must it have been not to retaliate against his oppressors, as Branch Rickey demanded of him?
At the time, I was also amazed to read about how little current major leaguers seemed to know about Robinson's legacy and the door he had opened for so many players. I remember reading an article in Inside Sports or Sport magazine in which the Tigers' Lou Whitaker barely knew anything of Robinson. (Unfortunately, I can't find a link to the decades-old piece.) And this was from a player who played second base, the very same position as Robinson.
Thankfully, that seems to have changed. Even if some players wear No. 42 on Friday just to be cool, they likely know what the number represents, at the very least. Would it be more special if only a handful of players - especially to whom the gesture truly means something - wore Robinson's number. Yes, probably.
But choosing to participate in the tribute can't really be a bad thing, can it? If even one person turns to someone next to them while at a ballgame or watching on TV Friday and asks why all the players are wearing No. 42, isn't that a worthy gesture. Isn't that a suitable tribute to one of baseball's pioneers?