Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 15, 2022

42, At 75

A NOTE TO READERS:  Today’s post originally appeared on April 15, 2021.  It is republished today, with minor editing mainly reflecting the advancement of the calendar, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major league game.  The regular twice-weekly posting schedule resumes on Sunday.

It has been a lifetime now since that distant April afternoon in 1947.  Three-quarters of a century since a short walk by Jackie Robinson, just the few steps from the Brooklyn Dodgers dugout to first base at Ebbets Field, changed the Great Game forever.  The span of years is greater by more than two decades than the time Robinson was granted among the living, and long enough so that only a dwindling few remain who can claim a first-hand memory of the day.  For the rest of us, much of what happened seventy-five years ago has disappeared into the mists of time.  Yet on this April 15, as it has on every one since 2004, Major League Baseball seeks to ensure the memory of that moment is kept alive.  From Citi Field and Fenway Park on the east coast, to Petco Park and Dodger Stadium on the west, it is 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 merely players, but all uniformed personnel including managers, coaches, and umpires, wearing number 42 on April 15 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, three-quarters of a century later one cannot be certain if the anecdote is true or merely a comforting myth.  However, 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 is 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 at that moment, while admitting that he did so only because Reese was a fully developed character in the screenplay.  What evidence exists to support the line ever 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 about the lack of Black managers and executives in baseball, it is achingly clear he also 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 in the spring of 1947 that is commemorated on Jackie Robinson Day is seen as an end, when it was really just one more step in a march for justice that continues to this day.  That march carried those in the struggle across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, and to the village 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 1970s to, at long last, Progressive Field in Cleveland and FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C., just within this decade.

A lifetime after Jackie Robinson stepped onto that diamond in Flatbush, the march is far from finished.  After all, from the day that Robinson took that step it was more than a dozen years until Pumpsie Green finally completed the integration of major league franchises by taking the field for the Boston Red Sox.  By the time Green did so, Robinson had been retired for three seasons.  Days like this are important because they compel us to mine the past for meaning.  Yet that excavation must be about more than unearthing poignant reminders of where we have been, for history also offers guidance on where we still must go. 

So we celebrate his day with the universal wearing of number 42, because the memory of what Jackie Robinson did, and what he endured along the way, must be preserved.  But as Robinson was so keenly aware, the struggle continues, and the long, sometimes dangerous, often lonely march goes on.  It will do so for as long as it takes, until in the fullness of time the ancient promise is finally delivered, when justice runs down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

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