Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2021

Jackie’s Day Isn’t About A Number

It has been a lifetime now since that distant April 15th afternoon in 1947.  Seventy-four years since a short walk by Jackie Robinson, the minor distance from the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout to first base at Ebbets Field, changed the Great Game forever.  That is longer by more than two decades than Robinson was granted among the living, and long enough so that only a dwindling number remain who can claim a first-hand memory of the day.  For the rest of us, much of what happened three-quarters of a century ago has disappeared into the mists of time.  Yet on this April 15th, as it has on every one since 2004, Major League Baseball sought to ensure the memory of that moment is kept alive.  From Camden Yards and Nationals Park on the east coast, to Dodger Stadium and Oakland Coliseum on the west, it was Jackie Robinson Day, the annual commemoration of the then-28-year-old Robinson making his big league debut and tearing down the color barrier that had disgraced the sport throughout the 20th century.   

In 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson’s first game on what had been Opening Day of the 1947 season, baseball commissioner Bud Selig was joined by President Bill Clinton and Rachel Robinson in a ceremony at Shea Stadium retiring the number 42, which Robinson wore throughout his career with the Dodgers, from further use by all major league teams.  Then in March 2004, Selig announced there would be an annual commemoration, with related ceremonies in all ballparks.  Three years later, Ken Griffey Jr. asked Selig for permission to wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, and the commissioner was so taken by the idea that he encouraged other players to do so as well.  The response was surprising, with more than two hundred donning jerseys with Robinson’s old number on the back.  While some players suggested the gesture watered down the meaning of the day, within two seasons the practice of not just players, but all uniformed personnel including managers, coaches, and umpires, wearing number 42 on April 15th was firmly established.

After almost two decades, at many ballparks the sharing of Robinson’s number is the most visible element of the day that honors him.  It has kept alive one of many stories from Robinson’s career, that of a white teammate rallying to his side in the face of racist vitriol from an opposing team and fans in the stands during a Brooklyn road trip by saying to Robinson, “maybe tomorrow we’ll all wear number 42, so they can’t tell us apart.” 

As is the case with tales that cling through time to every hero, nearly three-quarters of a century later one cannot be certain if the anecdote is true or merely a comforting myth.  But there is agreement that at the very least, Hollywood managed to misdirect the popular imagination when it comes to the “we’ll all wear 42” story.  In the 2013 movie about Robinson, there is a scene in which Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson to quiet a crowd of hecklers in Cincinnati.  It’s a great moment, one supported by at least a handful of contemporaneous accounts, and a fine scene, with Lucas Black and the late Chadwick Boseman in the roles of Reese and Robinson.  But movie director Brian Helgeland decided to heighten the drama by putting the “we’ll all wear 42” line in Reese’s mouth, while admitting that he did so only because Reese was a fully developed character in the screenplay.  What evidence exists to support the line every having been uttered at all strongly suggests that it came from Dodgers outfielder Gene Hermanski.

Whether fact or fiction, during his lifetime Robinson would surely have appreciated the sentiment the words convey.  But since in his last public statement, just nine days before his death, Robinson spoke out about the lack of black managers and executives in baseball, it seems likely he would also have understood the limits of symbolism.  That understanding must be shared by those on the field and those in the stands today, for it is not enough to preserve a memory if its meaning is lost, washed away by a rising tide of hostility and hate. 

The great danger is that the moment commemorated on Jackie Robinson Day is seen as an end, when it was just one more step in an unending march for justice.  That march carried those in the struggle across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, and to the little town of Seneca Falls in 1848, and to the Greenwich Village streets outside the Stonewall Inn in 1969.  It has wound its way through the world of sports, from the Dartmouth College campus in the early ‘70s to, at long last, FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C., and Progressive Field in Cleveland just within the past year.

A lifetime after Jackie Robinson stepped onto that diamond in Flatbush, the march is far from finished.  After all, it was more than twelve years from the time that Robinson took that step until Pumpsie Green finally completed the integration of major league franchises by taking the field for the Boston Red Sox.  That the struggle continues was apparent this week when Yu Chang was subjected to racist hate on social media after the Cleveland infielder, who was born in Taiwan, committed a costly error in a game against Chicago; as it was when New York center fielder Aaron Hicks, who came up through the Minnesota farm system and made his major league debut with the Twins, was subjected to similar abuse for taking himself out of the Yankees lineup after one more black man became the victim of one more police shooting in a Minneapolis suburb. 

So we’ll celebrate all ballplayers wearing number 42 on this day, because the memory of what Jackie Robinson did, and what he endured along the way, must be preserved.  But as Major League Baseball acknowledged when it moved this year’s All-Star Game from Atlanta, the struggle is nowhere near over, and the long, sometimes dangerous, and often lonely march continues.  It will do so for as long as it takes, until judgment runs down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.


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