The anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers debut, April 15, 1947, is always a major event in baseball. We simply cannot forget how important it was in breaking down racial barriers all over the nation. Not just by showing that African-Americans could play baseball just as well as whites, but the integrity and courage he, Larry Doby (who started playing for the Indians later that same year), and other pioneers of the late ’40s and ’50s showed. They probably also helped pave the way for Latinos and others to follow suit and come to the Majors in more recent times. Each new group has brought its own talents and flair to the game (both collectively and individually), raising the bar of competition for all who followed.
So, it was a little strange to hear yesterday that Jackie’s first game, when it happened, actually wasn’t that big a deal to the New York Times, or even to the Associated Press. Especially considering the negative reaction his signing drew from rival teams, and that the game drew over 26,000 fans (an excellent regular-season crowd in those days), including thousands of blacks. Branch Rickey deserves a lot of credit for sticking his neck out to sign Robinson, even though he had to tell his player not to retaliate against any of the abuse he was likely to face. But as the AP’s Jim Becker recounted in 2007, the moment’s significance wasn’t necessarily lost to the media even then. He claimed that many in the press box that day, including himself, likened the debut and Robinson’s career-long triumph over segregation as something akin to our then-recent defeat of Nazism.
62 years later, I think Becker was right. Can you honestly imagine a sport or element of our society where there could ever be justification for excluding someone because of race? Didn’t think so. But to make sure that we don’t forget that the majors were once “whites only,” it was a really classy gesture for MLB to have its tribute include donning all of the teams in Robinson’s #42 for last night’s games. Fittingly, the Mets dedicated their Jackie Robinson Rotunda, Citi Field’s centerpiece, then recorded their first win at the new yard. Likewise, Mariano Rivera, the last player who is still grandfathered-in to wear #42, recorded yet another save as the Yankees beat Tampa to finish off a series win at Tropicana Field. Of course, the Yankees will retire #42 for Rivera soon after his playing days are over, so I guess you could say he and Robinson will share it like Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey do for #8 in Monument Park.
Speaking of the Yanks, home opener is tomorrow, meaning the new era/stadium is officially upon us.