Fifty years after Jackie Robinson became the first black player in the majors, baseball retired his number in tribute Tuesday night, saying No. 42 will belong to the sports pioneer “for the ages.”
With President Clinton and Robinson’s widow, Rachel, standing at home plate, acting commissioner Bud Selig announced that baseball was retiring the number the late Hall of Famer wore throughout his career.
“The day Jackie Robinson stepped on a major league field will forever be remembered as baseball’s proudest moment,” Selig said. “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.”
No other major professional sport has honored one of its players in a similar fashion.
The game between the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers was halted after the fifth inning for 35 minutes as Clinton, using two canes, walked to home plate with Selig and Mrs. Robinson. He waved to the near-capacity crowd and gave a thumbs-up sign as Secret Service men ringed the field.
“It is hard to believe that it was 50 years ago at Ebbets Field that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever,” he said. “Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day and we’ve all been trying to catch up ever since.”
With players from both teams standing in front of their dugouts, Clinton saluted Robinson’s contribution to his game and his country.
“Today I think every American should say a special word of thanks to Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and members of that Dodgers team who made him one of their own and proved America is a better, stronger, richer country when we all work together and give everyone a chance,” he said.
“I can’t help thinking if Jackie was here with us tonight, he would say we have done a lot of good, but we can do better.”
Mrs. Robinson called the celebration “a great moment for all of us.”
“I believe that the greatest tribute that we can pay to Jackie Robinson is to gain new support for a more equitable society. And in this heady environment of unity, it is my hope that we can carry his living legacy beyond this glorious moment,” she said.
After Selig’s announcement, scores of red, white and blue balloons soared from behind the right field fence. On the left-field wall Robinson’s No. 42 appeared next to three previously retired New York Mets numbers - Casey Stengel’s No. 37, Gil Hodges’ No. 14 and Tom Seaver’s No. 41.
The 12 players who currently wear No. 42, like Butch Huskey of the Mets and Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox, will be permitted to keep the number until they leave the game, Selig said.
But no one will be given the number from now on, he added.
“I have a lot of pride now,” Huskey said. “I can walk anywhere and they’ll say ‘He’s one of the guys who can wear No. 42.’ I’ll walk alone.”
There were tributes to Robinson at other major league ballparks Tuesday night, with the Shea Stadium ceremony being shown on video screens and his number flashing on scoreboards.
Robinson’s grandson, Jesse Simms, threw out the first ball for the game between the Mets and Dodgers. Simms, who will play football at UCLA this fall, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, shook hands with homeplate umpire Eric Gregg, who is black, as he went out for the pitch and again as he left the field.
Before the game, both teams lined up on the foul lines and a half-dozen of Robinson’s old teammates, including Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, were introduced.
Also on hand was Larry Doby, who followed Robinson to the majors, joining the Cleveland Indians 11 weeks later as the first black player in the American League. “Jackie was first, and I think … what’s happening tonight should be his,” Doby told ESPN, which televised the game.
On the main scoreboard was a photo of Robinson in his classic white Brooklyn uniform coming down the third-base line, daring a pitcher to do something about it. Next to that was a message: “He was the handsome, heroic giant of our youth who taught us determination, taught us perseverance and finally, he taught us justice.”
When Robinson broke into the majors on April 15, 1947, there was no civil rights movement in America. It was a year before President Truman desegregated the armed services. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court was still seven years away. Martin Luther King Jr. had not yet graduated from Morehouse College.
It was in that environment that Robinson embarked on his lonely odyssey, one made more difficult by his pledge to Dodgers boss Branch Rickey not to answer the fusillade of abuse triggered by his arrival.
“He was the right one to do it,” said Buck O’Neil, who played with and managed the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. “I don’t know if others could have done it.”
Don Newcombe, another old Dodgers pitcher, said teams were careful about what they said to him.
“I had the baseball and I could throw it doggone hard,” he said.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.