Jackie Robinson honored "42": Fifty years after he played his first major-league game, the sport celebrates its first black player with ceremonies and the permanent retirement of his number.

April 16, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Brooklyn Dodgers great Jackie Robinson didn't rate a headline in most of America's mainstream newspapers the day he broke baseball's color barrier a half-century ago, but the 50th anniversary of his first major-league game was knee-deep in ceremony and symbolism.

There was his widow, Rachel Robinson, standing side by side with President Clinton to honor a man who had to cross a vast racial divide just to stand side by side with the other top baseball players of his era.

There was his grandson, Jesse Simms, throwing out the first ball on Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium -- too young to remember the indignities Robinson gracefully endured, but not too young to live in a world where racial division remains rampant.

"It is hard to believe that it was 50 years ago today at Ebbets Field that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and America," Clinton said during a 30-minute ceremony after the fifth inning of the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets.

"Jackie scored the go-ahead run that day, and all of America has been trying to catch up ever since," Clinton said.

It was major-league baseball's finest hour.

The national pastime was a giant step ahead of the rest of American society.

The Supreme Court ruling that ended public school segregation was still seven years away.

Congress would not pass the landmark Voting Rights Act until more than a decade after that.

But Robinson proved to a grudging white America that blacks deserved to play on the same athletic fields and -- by extension -- compete equally in other areas of endeavor.

He died of a heart attack in 1972 at age 53.

"I believe that the greatest tribute that we can pay to Jackie Robinson is to give new support for a more equitable society," Rachel Robinson said.

"And in this heady environment of unity, it is my hope that we can carry this living legacy beyond this glorious moment."

Fifty years on, Robinson is a figure of immense significance to black America and the world of professional sport, so significant that major-league baseball did something quite unusual last night.

Acting commissioner Bud Selig announced that Robinson's No. 42 would be retired in perpetuity by all 30 major-league clubs.

"Major-league baseball has long operated under the premise that no player is bigger than the game other than Jackie Robinson," Selig said.

"Jackie's entry into major-league baseball 50 years ago remains baseball's proudest moment.

"Major League Baseball is retiring No. 42 in tribute to his great achievements and for the significant contributions he made to society.

"No. 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages."

Selig explained that current players who wear No. 42 as a tribute to Robinson -- such as Orioles catcher Lenny Webster and Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn -- will be allowed to wear it for the remainder of their careers, but the number will no longer be issued by any major-league club.

The announcement was punctuated by the unveiling of Robinson's number on the left-field fence at Shea Stadium.

There were Robinson ceremonies at every major league ballpark yesterday, including Camden Yards, where longtime Afro-American sports editor Sam Lacy threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

The world has changed dramatically over the past 50 years, but there was one striking similarity between the Brooklyn Dodgers of 1947 and the Los Angeles Dodgers of 1997.

The Brooklyn Dodgers opened the season with just one black American on their roster.

The latter-day Dodgers have only one U.S.-born black player -- utility man Wayne Kirby, who quickly became the focus of news media attention in the clubhouse yesterday afternoon.

"I heard a lot about [Robinson] from my grandfather," Kirby said. "He had a lot of pictures of him on the wall.

"Everything was baseball and boxing to my grandfather."

Everything was baseball and boxing to many black sports fans during the postwar era.

Heavyweight champion Joe Louis had been the first black professional athlete to achieve mainstream popularity in the United States, but African-American athletes had long been involved in professional boxing.

Baseball was different.

Major-league baseball was the national pastime, and Robinson finally brought it home to black America.

The barriers fell more quickly after that.

The Dodgers brought up black pitcher Dan Bankhead later in the season, then came Joe Black and Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.

Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League when he came up to the Cleveland Indians.

Doby and Black were in attendance last night among a crowd of dignitaries that also included Robinson teammates Ralph Branca and Sandy Koufax; politicians Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Rep. J. C. Watts of Oklahoma; league presidents Len Coleman and Gene Budig; and civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.

Black, who was Robinson's roommate after he joined the Dodgers in 1952, watched the baseball world pay tribute to his friend last night, but was quick with a reminder that Robinson used baseball as the vehicle for a more important mission.

"He was a serious man," Black said. "He thought and talked about serious things that concerned black people.

"That's why when Rachel started the Jackie Robinson Foundation that gives out all those scholarships to kids, I thought that was wonderful.

"That's just what Jackie would have wanted."

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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