Tuesday, April 15, 2014

They'll all wear No. 42 ... for Jackie

        Here is a guarantee: The star of every major-league baseball game tonight will be wearing uniform No. 42.
        Also, if you are working in a newspaper sports department and you have to write a baseball photo cutline tonight, identification might be difficult. "Who is this No. 42 in the photo?" is what I used to ask.
        My yearly joke ... back when I used to work.
        April 15 each year is one of the great days, obviously not because of income-tax filing deadline but because it is Jackie Robinson Day in baseball.
        No sport honors its heroes and the game's history better than baseball, and in my opinion, no honor in baseball is greater than this one.
        In 1997, Jackie Robinson's uniform No. 42 was retired through the game -- only those still using it at the time could keep wearing it. In 2004, baseball declared each April 15 Jackie Robinson Day, and starting with Ken Griffey Jr. asking to wear No. 42 in 2007, players (and some teams) began wearing No. 42.
        In 2009, it became a declared tradition--  every player, manager and coach in uniform will wear No. 42 on April 15 (or April 16, if a team is off the day before).
        In fact, this will be the first year that no active player wears No. 42 regularly because the last one -- fittingly, the classy Mariano Rivera -- retired after last season.
        Seeing everyone lined up in pregame ceremonies wearing No. 42 is special.
        I love it because like millions, I admired what Jackie Robinson stood for, admired his courage and his struggle as he broke baseball's color barrier, starting with his first official game on April 15, 1947.
        That was two months and one day before I was born, and almost all of Jackie's major-league career with the Brooklyn Dodgers was played before I began paying attention to baseball. His last season, 1956, was my first season in the United States, so I really don't remember seeing him play.
        However, I have seen the World Series films of the early and mid 1950s, I have seen the highlight clips of Jackie, and I'm going to say what might surprise you: I would not have liked Jackie as a player.
        I think he was one of those players who if he is on your team, you love him; if he's not, you don't like him at all. You might even despise him.
Jackie Robinson was one of the toughest baserunners in
 baseball history (photo from sports.yahoo.com)
        In Jackie's case, race -- his color -- had much or all to do with that. That would not have mattered to me.
        What would've mattered is that he played for the Dodgers -- and I'm a Yankees fan. In the years Jackie played -- 1947 to '56 -- the Yankees and Dodgers were the best teams in baseball. They faced each other in the World Series six of the 10 seasons.
        As a player, he was (1) a terrific talent, a guy who could beat the opponents with his bat, and (2) an agitator, an aggressive and disruptive baserunner who could frustrate opponents with his legs; and (3) a helluva competitor.
        He helped beat the Yankees in enough games for them to notice. But he and his Dodgers teammates -- the famed "Boys of Summer" team -- won only one of those six World Series. So we were all right with that.
        But my Yankees bias aside, I've grown to be a fan of those Brooklyn Bums.
        Reading Roger Kahn's The Boys of Summer -- one of my favorite sports books and published in 1972, the year Jackie died -- and dozens of books and articles about those 1950s Dodgers made me appreciate them and appreciate Jackie's challenges.
        One of the central themes of the poignant remembrance of the lives of the men who were the core of that team and the team's saga was Jackie's heroic entrance into a previously all-white game.
        Jackie certainly had plenty of detractors -- those who didn't want blacks in baseball, period -- and those who didn't like the way he played.
        He was an in-your-face, do-what-you-can-to-win player. And after those first couple of years when Dodgers GM Branch Rickey asked him to take the verbal and physical abuse and not react, he was an outspoken critic -- and I emphasize "outspoken" -- of those who opposed integration and he was an up-front advocate for social progress. He did not hold back.
        Among his rivals, none was greater than the next-door neighbor New York Giants, managed through the early 1950s by ex-Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, who in the chapter on Jackie from The Boys of Summer ("The Lion at Dusk") said in classic, crude Durocher fashion: "Ya want a guy that comes to play. This guy didn't just come to play. He come to beat ya. He come to stuff the (blank blank) bat right up your [behind]."
Rachel Robinson (left), Sharon Robinson and the last active
No. 42, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera last season
        Wow, thank you, Leo.
        Also among Robinson's critics was Casey Stengel, surprisingly perhaps as we look back because The Ol' Professor is regarded as one of baseball's most beloved and most colorful characters. But he and Jackie were often bitterly critical of each other in public. I can cite examples, but space is limited.
        I suspect that as much as Stengel liked to win (and did), he wouldn't have minded having Mr. Robinson on his team. That's not the way history unfolded.
       So now, in each major-league ballpark, the No. 42 is symbolized on an outfield wall or in a monument park such as the one at Yankee Stadium. Baseball treats the still-lovely Mrs. Robinson, Jackie's widow -- her name is Rachel, and there's no name better than that -- as royalty; same for Jackie's daughter, Sharon. They've helped carry on the man's legacy with their grace.  
         Baseball always has its flaws and its controversies. But retiring the No. 42 for all time -- except for April 15, one day per season when everyone wears the number, is about as good as it gets in the game.
          And you want symbolism? This year it has been 42 years -- 42 -- since Jackie Robinson left us -- far too soon at age 53. He is never to be forgotten, always to be honored, and that's the way it should be.

1 comment:

  1. From Roger S. Braniff Sr.: Let me share this personal story with you; wish I still had the proof of it. My Dad worked here for Equitable Life Assurance Company (40 years before retiring). The company would have annual business conventions throughout the country, and in 1959 the event was held in New York City. My Mother, brother and I would usually get to go as our vacation, since his portion of the expenses was covered, and on this one we did. We drove the entire trip, in a new 1959 Chevy Impala, no AC. What a treat -- we stayed at the Barbizon Plaza Hotel at 106 Central Park South.
    There would be some sort of entertainment for all -- this particular year it was a “Greats of Sports” and was held at Madison Square Garden (the original location). Three of the greats I remember very well. On stage was none other than Arnold Palmer, driving plastic golf balls into the audience. Two of the baseball greats that were introduced on stage were pitcher Bob Feller and the first black player to make history, Jackie Robinson.
    Afterward we were able to go to backstage/dressing room and got autographs from those three on the event program. We made it back home to Shreveport with this piece of history, but unknown to me today it got lost in our move and shuffle from our then-Queensboro location out to our new Garden Valley home only a year later. Man, I would love to have that today. Now I realize just how very SPECIAL those were and might be worth in the collecting world today.