LOS ANGELES – The Dodgers solemnly lined up along the third-base line, each and every one wearing No. 42.
Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the sport celebrated the 60th anniversary of his debut throughout the country Sunday, when more than 200 players, managers and coaches wore his number.
“I’ve often said that baseball’s most powerful moment in its really terrific history was Jackie Robinson’s coming into baseball,” commissioner Bud Selig said during an on-field ceremony before the Dodgers played the San Diego Padres. “It’s an incredible story – not just for baseball, but for society. Jackie was an American hero and the ultimate barrier-breaker. Threats to his life were commonplace. Yet Jackie took everything hate-mongers had to offer him. Not only is he a baseball Hall of Famer, he’s a Hall of Famer for all-time.”
Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson threw out ceremonial first pitches, and fellow Hall of Famers Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield were on hand, joined by actors Courtney B. Vance and Marlon Wayans. Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Adding a personal touch were Robinson’s widow, Rachel, and two Dodgers who knew him. Broadcaster Vin Scully paid tribute to Rachel Robinson, and Don Newcombe, Robinson’s former teammate and a longtime Dodgers executive, looked on.
At the 50th anniversary ceremony, at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1997, then-President Clinton spoke and Selig announced Robinson’s No. 42 was being retired by all major league teams. The only player wearing No. 42 then who remains active is New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera. After Cincinnati’s Ken Griffey Jr. asked for permission to wear the number Sunday, Selig invited others to use No. 42 for the day.
This year’s national celebration was centered at Dodger Stadium, not far from where Robinson grew up in Pasadena. He would become the first athlete to earn letters in four sports at UCLA, and he served in the U.S. Army during World War II before making his debut with the Dodgers at age 27.
The Brookinaires Gospel Choir from The First African Methodist Episcopal Church sang “Oh Happy Day,” a Robinson favorite.
Twin logos acknowledging Robinson were painted on both sides of the plate with another behind second base, and “Jackie Robinson Day” was printed on the bases.
There was a video tribute with Morgan and Aaron among those participating. And several current players expressed their thanks to Robinson.
Selig presented Mrs. Robinson with the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award for her work with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, formed in 1973 to raise scholarship money for qualified minorities. Robinson died in October 1972 at age 53.
“She’s made an enormous impact on our sport,” Selig said. “We are an institution with enormous social responsibilities. She keeps us focused on that.”
Then, speaking to Mrs. Robinson, Selig said: “You not only made baseball better, more important you made society better.”
Mrs. Robinson said 1,100 scholarship students have graduated from college and 266 are presently in school since the foundation was formed.
“We needed to find a way to hold onto him,” Mrs. Robinson said of her late husband. “Jack’s legacy is all over the place.
“We know if our youngsters don’t get educated, they won’t have a chance to achieve their highest potential. We indoctrinate with the notion of giving back. We have a 97 percent graduation rate.”
“Whites inside only” and “Coloreds entrance” were signs of the time when Robinson played his first game at Ebbets Field. He was subjected to racist remarks from players and fans alike.
But Dodgers executive Branch Rickey made Robinson his choice to break the color barrier because he believed he was mature enough and tough enough to survive and thrive.
Robinson retired following the 1956 season – after the Dodgers traded him to the rival Giants – and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962.
“That first day, we were so anxious in the morning without acknowledging it,” 84-year-old Rachel Robinson said. “I think what we felt at the end of the day was a great deal of relief. He performed even though he didn’t do very well.”
Robinson went hitless in his first game, but reached base on an error and scored the go-ahead run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves.
Ceremonies were held at 10 of the 15 big league ballparks where games were scheduled Sunday – rain washed out games at the five other sites.
The St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers honored Robinson by having all their players outfitted in No. 42.
“I think more than anything I just want people to be able to learn and understand Jackie Robinson’s life and what he had to endure, and the impact he has on American society, not just baseball,” said outfielder Preston Wilson, the only African-American player on the Cardinals.
“What you’re doing is celebrating what this guy has done,” Griffey said. “Without him, who knows when the next African-American athlete is going to be able to play. The things that he went through and what he stands for, you have to celebrate his life and legacy. Today is just, for me, my way of saying thanks.”
San Diego’s Chris Young, who pitched against the Dodgers on Sunday night, wrote about Robinson for his 2002 Princeton thesis.