April 15 is the day that Major League Baseball pays tribute to Ken Griffey, Jr.’s idea to wear No. 42 in recognition of Jackie Robinson.
Note: I just had to pause from writing this blog to watch Miami Marlins second baseman Omar Infante hit the team’s first home run at their new ballpark. Good grief, Las Vegas has nothing on the Marlins home run fountain. Back to our regularly scheduled commentary.
Like pink bats on Mother’s Day or stars and stripes hats on Memorial Day, wearing No. 42 on April 15 has become a standardized tradition for MLB. Since 2009 all uniformed players and personnel, including umpires, have worn the number on this day. The significance of Jackie Robinson’s contributions to baseball and society cannot be overstated. A Kostya Kennedy article about Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson, in the April 16 issue of Sports Illustrated, eloquently summarizes the man.
The events of 1947 changed not just the national pastime but also national perceptions and beliefs, paving the way to the marches and moral stands that began at last to lift America out of its racial ignominy. That cool afternoon at Ebbets Field 65 years ago remains the finest hour in the 142 years of baseball history. Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr. said years later, was “a pilgrim walking the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”
But wearing No. 42 on April 15 is more of a tribute to a great idea than it is a tribute to a great man. During the 2007 season, Griffey contacted Commissioner Bud Selig and the Robinson family to request special permission to wear the number on Jackie Robinson Day. The jersey number had been retired by every team ten years earlier as a tribute to Robinson. With permission granted, Griffey’s idea expanded. Initially, one player on every team would wear the number. Then, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Robinson’s team when they were in Brooklyn, had every player on the team wear the number. The Dodgers were followed by several other teams until MLB arrived at its current tradition.
Robinson’s contributions should be recognized every day, as they are with the placement of No. 42 in every Major League ballpark and monuments throughout several stadiums. The foundation that bears his name, creates advanced educational opportunities and encourages academic excellence. His legacy is too great to be contained by one day of the year. But hopefully, on the day that bears his name, people also remember to think of Griffey when every player is wearing No. 42. Remember him for arguably the sweetest swing in the history of the game. Remember him for the youthful exuberance with which he played the game. The hat turned backwards during batting practice. The enthusiastic smile. The Swingman logo. And remember him for a great idea.