Every year, Major League Baseball, from players, to coaches, to management, to staff, to umpires, celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on field, in recognition of the man who “broke the color barrier” in baseball. The story of Jackie Robinson has been told many times and is much more complicated and important than can be covered here in a single blog post. I will supply some recommended sources for those wishing to learn more about not just Robinson the baseball player, but Robinson the man; a man who, at age 53, left us at way too young an age. An online memorial to Robinson may be found HERE.
Each April 15 is a major celebration around Major League Baseball. April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day, a day that players in particular are highly respectful of. So what is Jackie Robinson Day and why is it celebrated on April 15?
In 1946, Jackie Robinson began his career in what many, particularly in that time, called “organized baseball.” Organized baseball basically meant white baseball and not the Negro Leagues. For those seeking more information on Robinson’s first Spring Training, I highly recommend the book, Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Spring Training written by Chris Lamb. Here, you will learn much about baseball, the racism of the era, and the struggles and successes young Robinson dealt with on his way to being on the 1947 Dodgers roster.
Opening Day in baseball is always a major event and opening day in 1947 was April 15 (thus why Jackie Robinson Day is on April 15.) Jackie Robinson started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers that day, going 0-3 at the plate. He did reach on an error and scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh inning. It may not have been what he and the fans were expecting, but he held his own and showed he belonged with the Dodgers.
For the 1947 season, Robinson hit a very respectable .297 and lead the league in stolen bases with 29 while playing in 151 games. He was justly rewarded at the end of the season, finishing 5th in the Most Valuable Player voting and winning Rookie of the Year. You can find Robinson’s career statistics by click THIS LINK. After an extraordinary career, Robinson was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Throughout his life, Jackie Robinson was more than a baseball player. He was truly a cultural icon. In his post-baseball life, he used his fame in support of Civil Rights efforts and was often seen accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King is quoted to Robinson saying, “You have made every Negro in America proud through your baseball prowess and your inflexible demand for equal opportunity for all” You may read more about Robinson’s relationship to the Civil Rights movement HERE. Also recommended is the book, Call Him Jack: The Story of Jackie Robinson, Black Freedom Fighter.
On April 15, 1997 at Shea Stadium before the Los Angeles Dodgers took on the New York Mets, Jackie Robinson’s number 2 was retired throughout Major League Baseball. Players then currently wearing the number were allowed to continue throughout their career but future players would be allowed to wear the number. The last active player to wear 42 in the Majors was the New York Yankees star reliever and now Hall of Fame member, Mariano Rivera, who retired after the 2013 season.
A listing of the last players for each team to have worn the famous number 42 is below.
Arizona Diamondbacks–never issued
Atlanta Braves–Armando Reynoso (1991-1992)
Baltimore Orioles–Lenny Webster (1997-1999)
Boston Red Sox–Mo Vaughn (1991-1998)
California Angels–Mo Vaughn (1999-2000)
Chicago Cubs–Dave Smith (1991-1992)
Chicago White Sox–Scott Ruffcorn (1996)
Cincinnati Reds–Roger Salkeld (1996)
Cleveland Indians (now Guardians)–Michael Jackson (1997-1999)Detroit Tigers–Jose Lima (2001-2002)
Florida Marlins–Dennis Cook (1997)
Houston Astros–Jose Lima (1997-2001)
Kansas City Royals–Tom Goodwin (1995-1997)
Los Angeles Dodgers–Ray Lamb (1969) (Robinson’s 42 was retired by the team in 1972)
Milwaukee Brewers–Scott Karl (1995-1999)
Minnesota Twins–Michael Jackson (2002)
Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals)–Kirk Rueter (1993-1996)
New York Mets–Mo Vaughn (2002-2003)
New York Yankees–Mariano Rivera (1995-2013)
Oakland Athletics–Buddy Groom (1996-1997)
Philadelphia Phillies–Toby Borland (1994-1996)
Pittsburgh Pirates–Jason Schmidt (1996-1997)
San Francisco Giants–Kirk Rueter (1996-1997)
St. Louis Cardinals–Jose Oliva (1995)
Seattle Mariners–Butch Huskey (1999)
Tampa Bay Rays-never issued
Texas Rangers–Marc Sagmoen (1997)
Toronto Blue Jays–Xavier Hernandez (1989)
Jackie Robinson Day was first celebrated in 2004 at Shea Stadium in New York with the Mets being host to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Dignitaries at the event included Robinson’s widow Rachel, President Bill Clinton, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. In announcing the tribute, Commissioner Selig stated, “In honor of Jackie, Major League Baseball is taking the unprecedented step of retiring his uniform number in perpetuity. Number 42 from this day forward will never again be issued by a major-league club. Number 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages.”
In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color bearer in Major League Baseball, Ken Griffey, Jr., with the support and backing of the Robinson family, asked Commissioner Selig for permission to wear number 42 in honor of Robinson. With permission granted, Griffey also wore his game socks in the same manner of the retired legend.
For the next decade the only players to wear 42 were those grandfathered in, in 1997. Griffey again approached the commissioners office in 2007 for permission to wear the retired number in recognition of the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s first appearance.
Selig took the request under serious consideration and came back with the offer of allowing all players to wear the number. In its first year, Jackie Robinson Day was honored by more than 200 players and coaches.
Now, each season, April 15 is a date looked forward to on the schedule as all players wear number 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson and his contributions not just to baseball, but to his country. Teams pay special tribute at the start of games and it can be seen in the faces of players, coaches, and fans, just how much the day means to them.
With the progress that has been made, and with the knowledge that equality is still a work in progress, April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, is one of the most important days in the baseball season.