If Major League Baseball was active today, all players, managers, and umpires would be wearing #42 on the backs of their uniforms. Today is Jackie Robinson Day, a custom that dates back sixteen years.
In 2004, Major League Baseball began a wonderful tradition to honor and remember Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the league. For one day, all members of the league would wear the number otherwise retired. The date, April 15, was chosen to commemorate his first appearance in an MLB game, the day Robinson broke the color barrier.
On this day 73 years ago, Jackie Robinson played in his first game for his Brooklyn Dodgers, the team for which he would play all ten seasons. It was an inauspicious start, in case you were wondering. Robinson went 0-3 but scored a run in a win over the Boston Braves. (An unrelated, but interesting note: the Detroit Tigers also won that day, beating the St. Louis Browns, who would go on to become the Baltimore Orioles.)
Regardless of the slow start, Jackie Robinson put together a brilliant career. That same season, he went on to win the first Rookie of the Year trophy in the league’s history. In fact, this is part of the reason the trophy now bears his name. He was a six-time All-Star and a part of the 1955 Dodgers championship team, and he won a league MVP award to top it off. He was easily named to the Hall of Fame in his first year on the ballot.
In 1997, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first game, the league announced they would be retiring his number, 42, for all future players. Active players wearing #42 were allowed to keep their number, but no one could begin using it after that date. (Another piece of trivia: the last Tiger to wear the number was spirited right-hander, José Lima, back in 2002, for those of you who remember “Lima Time!”)
This marked the first time one of the major American sports instituted a league-wide retirement of a number; since then, the National Hockey League has followed suit with Wayne Gretzky’s #99. It is impossible not to see the impact Jackie Robinson made on the game of baseball.
Losing the opportunity to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day is yet another in the long list of setbacks owed to the coronavirus pandemic. Even so–although there is no baseball being played–today is still a fine day to honor Jackie Robinson.