Today in Major League baseball, it is Jackie Robinson Day. The baseball pioneer is being remembered in all fifteen ballparks today, as it was 60 years ago today that he made his debut as a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in their Opening Day game against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.
It was a momentous day, as it was the first time a black player played in a major league game in the 20th Century. (It is mistakenly thought that Robinson was the first black player ever in the majors. That is not true, as there were black players playing in the majors as late as 1884. They were unofficially banned from the game to please many Southerners who simply wouldn't play with black players. It is unfortunate that many of those black players are all but forgotten.)
MLB has done a nice job remembering Robinson, who was simply a trailblazer. Earlier this year, Ken Griffey Jr. asked baseball if he could wear number 42, which has been retired throughout the game, on the anniversary. His idea blossomed among many other players, and today, Coco Crisp, David Ortiz and DeMarlo Hale will wear the number for the Red Sox, as well as Willie Randolph will for the Mets.
But I found something very curious. The entire Los Angeles Dodgers team will wear 42, as that was the franchise Robinson played his entire career for. But why is EVERY player on the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, and Philadelphia Phillies wearing it? It is especially ironic that all the Cardinals and Phillies are wearing 42, as when Robinson came up in 1947, those were two of the teams that gave Robinson the hardest time, hurling racial abuse at him when they played the Dodgers. MLB should have just let a select number of players or coaches wear it. Letting an entire team wear it (besides the Dodgers) somehow cheapens the special nature of it.
It is well-known that Jackie Robinson had an extremely difficult time in his first years in the majors. He faced death threats, abuse from other players and fans, teammates that resented his presence, and hotels that wouldn't serve him. His career was unlike any other player, before or since. He had not just all of Black America watching his every move, but that of White America as well. Every black player should thank him every night for what he went through to integrate the game. They have reaped the benefits of his sacrifice.
I saw Jackie Robinson once in person. I was 10 in 1972, and Gil Hodges died suddenly that April of a heart attack. His funeral was held in a Catholic church near my home in Brooklyn, just 11 blocks away, and my father, my sisters and I viewed the proceedings from across the street, with hundreds of others. A whole bunch of players from past and present came, and I'll never forget seeing what appeared to be an elderly black man with white hair get out of a car. A man near me said, "That's Jackie Robinson." And it was. The late Dodgers announcer Red Barber once said that everything Robinson went through probably took many years off his life, and in 1972, he was just 53 years old, but he looked much older. He died six months later, of complications from diabetes.
The bad weather in the East will prevent some players from wearing 42 today, and that is a shame. But MLB is to be commended for remembering a brave man who 60 years ago today took the baseball field and changed the game forever.