What was it like to wear No. 42 every day? These 9 stars can tell you

April 15th, 2024

To see No. 42 on a baseball jersey today is to think of .

It’s inescapable, with anyone in uniform every April 15 donning those digits. But before the 50th anniversary in 1997 of Robinson breaking the color barrier, when acting Commissioner Bud Selig stood on the field at Shea Stadium and announced that the number would be retired “in perpetuity” by all Major League teams, No. 42 was in use by players on 14 of the 28 teams, by rookies and veterans alike. Some wore it in honor of Robinson; others were simply assigned the number when they walked into the clubhouse for the first time.

It's not a number worn by too many stars. Only eight players in AL/NL history wore it for 10 or more seasons, though three Hall of Famers are on the list:

  1. Mariano Rivera (HOF), 19 seasons
  2. Dave Henderson, 14 seasons
  3. Mo Vaughn, 12 seasons
  4. Rick Mahler, 12 seasons
  5. Ron Hodges, 12 seasons
  6. Sonny Siebert, 11 seasons
  7. Jackie Robinson (HOF), 10 seasons
  8. Bruce Sutter (HOF), 10 seasons

Here are the thoughts of nine players who wore 42 in the four decades between Jackie Robinson’s final game and the universal retirement of his uniform number in the middle of a game in New York City.

The Hall of Famer who wore it for a month

was called up to the Tigers when he was 19 years old. As a rookie, he wasn’t about to request any particular number. And he doesn’t remember walking into the Tiger Stadium clubhouse on Sept. 8, 1977, and seeing his first Major League uniform – with No. 42 on the back – because it had been a whirlwind.

“We flew in on a Thursday morning,” he said in a phone interview. (The “we” he refers to is Lou Whitaker, who was also called up the same day and assigned No. 44.) “We were in Jacksonville, we flew up to Detroit, the Tigers had a day game. So we got there right before the game. We went up to the GM's office, signed a contract, went to the clubhouse, we were just getting ready to start. We put our uniform on. We went to the bench. We didn’t play. Immediately after the game, we flew to Boston to play a doubleheader the next day.

“I’m proud of the fact that I wore No. 42 for one month and I know the significance of that. That means a great deal to me and obviously many others. But do I actually remember all that? I do not. That's a lot that happened in a short period of time.”

Trammell and Whitaker debuted in the second game of that Sept. 9 doubleheader, the first of an AL/NL record 1,918 games they would play together as double-play partners. When they reported to Spring Training in 1978, they were given the numbers now retired in Detroit: No. 3 for Trammell and No. 1 for Whitaker.

“I wish I would have kept it, my first big league uniform,” Trammell said. “But I wasn't thinking that way at that particular time. And then, the next spring when I came to Spring Training, my number was changed. Would I ever have asked for a uniform number back then? Hell, no. I was just happy to have a uniform.”

According to Baseball Reference’s database, Trammell is one of six Hall of Famers to wear 42. In addition to the three who are known by that number, Mike Mussina wore it for his first two months with the Orioles, August and September 1991, and Bob Lemon had it for five games with Cleveland in 1942.

“It was just by good fortune that I was given that number,” Trammell said. “But I do know about the history of the game, and now that we're getting closer to Jackie Robinson Day, you start reading and hearing more things. And what he went through – and others, but particularly Jackie, because he was the first – you just shake your head. It's just terrible. But it gives you a perspective of how tough Jackie Robinson was and he's getting the recognition that's long overdue. But it is nice to bring it to everybody's attention.”

The All-Star who wore it in high school

Dave Henderson donned No. 42 longer than any other hitter in the game, 14 seasons with the Mariners, Red Sox, A’s and Royals. He was the last hitter with the number to win a World Series, with Oakland in 1989. And it started back at Dos Palos High School in California.

“I was just reading about him in high school, all the racial stuff he had to go through to play baseball,” the man known as Hendu said in an interview with McClatchy News Service in 1991. “He survived. Most of us just have to be good and play baseball. I just give a thank you.”

Henderson, who died in 2015 at the age of 57, was asked about Robinson at various times throughout his career.

“The success of Jackie Robinson is the reason why I wear his number. The man was a great player,” he told MLB.com’s Bill Ladson – then writing for Sport magazine – in 1989.

Henderson also made sure to pay it forward …

The speedster who took the veteran’s advice

grew up a Giants fan but was drafted by the Dodgers in 1989 and made his debut two years later, wearing No. 47 because, by then, Los Angeles had retired Robinson’s number. When the Royals selected him off waivers in ’94, Goodwin became teammates with Henderson and wore the 47 he had in L.A.

Henderson finished his career with the Royals in 1994, and he had a suggestion for Goodwin.

“Hendu said, ‘Hey, don’t forget about 42.’ And I really didn't understand what he meant,” Goodwin, now the first-base coach for the Braves, told MLB.com’s Mark Bowman. “I was like, ‘Don't forget about 42? Think about 42?’ And so it kind of hit me then. I never really thought about wearing No. 42. I was always 24, whenever I was playing, so I wanted to be 24, whenever I had made it [to the big leagues].

“So when he said that it was like, ‘OK.’ So as soon as the next year came, I called our equipment guy. I said, ‘Hey, you know, is it OK if I get No. 42 instead of 47 – if I make the team, obviously, the next year. … To get a chance to know why [Henderson] wore 42, and then to kind of keep that going was really, really special.”

Goodwin wore No. 42 for three seasons in Kansas City, 1995-97, and was one of the players with the number when it was retired throughout MLB. When he was traded to Texas in July 1997, he switched to the number he originally wanted, reversing the digits and taking No. 24.

“Being [exempted] was nice, except I got traded that year, in '97,” he said. “They had just retired it and nobody was wearing it at the time. So even though I was supposed to be [able to wear it], they didn't want to kind of unretire it and give it to me. So they gave me 24 when I got to Texas. But it's special to wear it … to have had a chance to wear it to honor Jackie. And coming up with the Dodgers, I already knew about Jackie a lot. Got a chance to talk to Roy Campanella a lot about what was going on before he had passed away as well. So to be in that organization at the time was special for me.”

The catcher who had a tip

Lenny Webster was in his first Spring Training with the Orioles in 1997 after signing with them as a free agent the previous December.

“Elrod Hendricks brought it to my attention, God rest his soul,” Webster said in a phone interview last week. “He came to me in my locker and he said, ‘You know they’re retiring Jackie’s number this year?’ And I knew the family, Rachel and Sharon, from my Montreal Expo days. So after Elrod made mention of it to me, I thought about it, I started smiling and I went to the clubhouse attendant and I told him I wanted to change my number. And that’s exactly how it happened.”

How Hendricks, a longtime Orioles player and coach who died in 2005, knew the number would be retired is not clear. But it allowed Webster to wear No. 42 for his two and a half seasons in Baltimore, until he was released in July 1999.

“I always knew the importance of Jackie’s breakthrough even before I wore 42,” he said. “But for Elrod to bring it to my attention and just the thought that Major League Baseball in its entirety was retiring the number, I just thought I’d pay homage to Jackie and wear the number.”

Webster was able to keep his jersey.

“I have it framed,” he said. “My son has it. He hangs it in his room.”

The second baseman whose name was misspelled

Jack Perconte was the quintessential 1980s second baseman: a .270 career hitter over seven seasons, more walks than strikeouts, two career home runs in 1,630 plate appearances, able to steal 30 bags in a full season, and a solid defender. He debuted with the Dodgers in 1980 before spending two seasons each in Cleveland and Seattle. His final stop was with the White Sox in 1986.

“I was given forty-two for my short stint with the Chicago White Sox,” he wrote on his website. “That memory is right up there with my few accomplishments on the big-league stage, and with each passing year, I consider it my proudest achievement.”

That first game in Chicago, on Aug. 25, 1986, was memorable for another reason, he wrote: “For my first night with the White Sox, along with the number 42 on my jersey, was the name Preconte. I played with a misspelled last name for an entire game. That is how sports go; the low is never far behind every high. Ha.”

But the importance of the jersey number didn’t resonate with Perconte right away.

“I don’t believe the significance hit me until Jackie’s number was retired by MLB,” he said in an email exchange. “What was memorable and significant was playing second base for the Dodgers for a short spell in the early ’80s, as many great Dodger former players or photos of Jackie used to be around the team, especially at Dodgertown in Vero Beach.”

Now he’s proud to be part of the 42 fraternity.

“I was elated when Robinson’s number was retired, as it should have been, and seeing his jersey in Cooperstown brought goosebumps,” he wrote in his email. “When I think of players with 42 I think of Mariano Rivera and my former Mariners teammate Dave Henderson.

“I do look forward to Jackie Robinson day each year. Unfortunately, I do not have my Sox jersey but have one from all the other teams I played for.”

The accidental Dodger who had to give it back

Ray Lamb was called up to the Dodgers on Aug. 1, 1969, and issued No. 42.

That’s right – 12 years after Jackie Robinson had retired and seven years after his Hall of Fame induction, his number was given to another player. At the time, Lamb didn’t think much of it.

“Nobody said anything to me during the year,” he told Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times five years ago, “but looking at those photos [of Jackie Robinson in the halls of Dodger Stadium], it dawned on me, and I was like, ‘Oh man.’”

After the season, the Dodgers asked for the number back and eventually retired it on June 4, 1972, along with the No. 39 worn by Roy Campanella and the No. 32 worn by Sandy Koufax. Why did it take so long?

“Retiring Brooklyn Dodger numbers just wasn’t on their radar,” Dodgers team historian Mark Langill told Plaschke. “Their focus was on establishing a Los Angeles presence.”

Now, Lamb appreciates the brief numerical connection to the legendary trailblazer.

“Jackie Robinson was such a great man, it is such an honor to even be remotely associated with him,” he told Plaschke.

The slugger who was the last Black player to wear No. 42

wore the number for 12 seasons, tied for the third-most all-time. He learned the significance of it in college at Seton Hall from assistant coach Nick Bowness.

“Nick was a great guy, and he wore number 42,” Vaughn told MLB.com’s Ian Browne in 2021. “We kept getting closer over my years at Seton Hall, and he said to me, ‘You’re going to go to the big leagues someday and I want you to wear this number. But you’ve got to look at the history.’”

So Vaughn studied up on Robinson.

“That’s when you start figuring out that he was a really special individual,” Vaughn said. “He was so talented, but it wasn’t really even about talent. It was more about mindset and what can you withstand? [Brooklyn Dodgers general manager] Branch Rickey had to take the guy that he knew could withstand the onslaught of what was going to happen to him. A very well-rounded man is the only person who could do that.”

When the Red Sox called up the slugger in 1991, he asked for and was given No. 42.

“I didn’t wear it in the Minors; the numbers didn’t go up that high,” Vaughn said. “I think they went to like 39. I was going to jump out and wear 44 and then I kind of remembered what [Bowness] told me.”

Vaughn played in Boston through 1998, then signed with the Angels. He was traded to the Mets in December 2001 and finished his career with two seasons there. He was the last player to wear No. 42 for all three of those franchises.

The rookie who made his debut on April 15, 1997

Marc Sagmoen was called up by the Rangers on April 14, 1997, to replace infielder Domingo Cedeno, who was out with an injury. He was in the starting lineup the next day, playing right field and batting seventh.

“I was kind of overwhelmed because everything was happening so fast,” Sagmoen said in an interview in 2015. “I hadn’t been following the news, so I didn’t realize MLB was planning a ceremony to retire his number that night. They did it between innings. I’m in the on-deck circle before my second at-bat, and (Rangers designated hitter) Mickey Tettleton tells me, ‘You’ve got to take your jersey off.’

“After the game, it was really crazy. Here I am, the new guy — I just want to do my job and stay out of the way — and there’s this press corps around my locker, asking about the jersey number.”

Sagmoen, who debuted the day before his 26th birthday, was assigned the number in Spring Training.

“I assumed I was going to be assigned one of those jersey numbers given to a backup offensive lineman,” he told The Olympian nine years ago. “Instead, I got the number Jackie Robinson wore. I knew all about him. I’d always been a huge fan of the history of baseball, and to be able to wear that jersey — it had a patch on the sleeve commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first season — I thought, wow, what an honor.”

Because he was technically wearing the number before it was retired, he could have continued to wear it that season. But he decided to switch to No. 37 instead – at which point it was retired in Texas, leading Goodwin to wear No. 24.

“If anybody’s number is going to be retired throughout the league, it should be his,” Sagmoen told The Associated Press. “I’ll be happy wearing something else. I don’t feel worthy of wearing 42.”

Sagmoen did ask if he could keep the jersey, at least to show his family. But he was told the Hall of Fame had already asked for it.

The Met who feared it’d be taken away

Butch Huskey was the starting third baseman against the Dodgers on April 15, 1997, wearing No. 42 when he led off the bottom of the fifth with a single that led to a two-run inning, the first runs in a game the Mets won, 5-0. After the frame, the game paused as Selig, Rachel Robinson and President Bill Clinton took the field for the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut.

“I thought they were going to take the number off of my back right there at Shea Stadium,” Huskey said last week in a phone interview. “And until I heard them say that we were [permitted] to wear it the rest of our careers, I just knew I was gonna have to find a new number to put on my back. But they ended up letting us keep the numbers, so I was ecstatic about all that.”

Huskey wore No. 10 as a rookie with the Mets in 1993, a 13-game cameo that September. After spending 1994 and most of ’95 at Triple-A, he was recalled in August 1995.

“I had asked for it at the time when I got to the big leagues with Charlie Samuel, our head clubhouse guy at the time,” he said. “I had told myself if I ever made it to the big leagues, that I would request to wear that number because of Jackie Robinson.

“It was the ultimate [honor]. One, being in the big leagues, but two, to wear that number because of everything that he had gone through to make it possible for people of color, to have an opportunity to play at that level.”

Huskey was traded to the Mariners in December 1998 and wore No. 42 for his half-season in Seattle before a trade to Boston, where he took No. 44.

“I chose not to wear it in Boston,” he explained. "That's when Mo Vaughn had just left, and I was really wanting to find my way in Boston and make my own [way] and not have to deal with answering Mo Vaughn questions all the time. So I chose to just wear number 44. Boston was going to give [42] to me, but I chose not to wear it because I didn't want to be compared to Mo Vaughn all the time.”

After finishing the season with the Red Sox, Huskey signed with the Twins for 2000 and reclaimed No. 42. But Minnesota traded him to Colorado that July, and he left 42 behind. Huskey played the final two months of the season – and his career – wearing No. 35.

Huskey will be part of the pregame festivities at Citi Field for Jackie Robinson Day 2024.

“It's amazing,” he said of the annual celebration of Robinson’s life and career. “It gives me chill bumps to know that it wasn't just a couple of us. Now everyone has to wear it that day. Even though we wore it for our careers, for [all of] Major League Baseball to wear No. 42 for a day, that's an ultimate compliment to Jackie Robinson. I just love the day. That's one of my favorite days in baseball.”