Selig wanted Jackie's legacy to live forever

April 14th, 2021

A version of this story was originally published in April 2020.

MILWAUKEE -- On the morning of May 18, 1947, two boys boarded a train in downtown Milwaukee for a journey neither would forget.

Bud Selig was 12 years old at the time. His travel companion was Herb Kohl, whose family lived just around the corner from the Seligs in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Kohl grew up to be a U.S. Senator and the owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. Selig founded the Milwaukee Brewers and went on to be the ninth Commissioner of Major League Baseball. On that Sunday morning, they were baseball-crazed kids eager to witness history in the making.

The destination was Chicago, where an older cousin of Selig’s, Sidney, met the boys and ushered them to Wrigley Field to see the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson play his first game there.

Barely a month earlier, Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier.

“We sat in the upper deck and we were the only white fans up there," Selig told in 2004. "There was so much electricity and drama."

Robinson worked a walk but finished 0-for-4 in that game, a 4-2 Dodgers victory over the Cubs and Wisconsin-born left-hander Johnny Schmitz. On the train ride home, Selig said, he and Kohl talked about what they had witnessed.

Selig wrote about that day in his 2019 memoir, “For the Good of the Game.”

"Even as a boy, I knew the impact that could have on American society, how it was going to bring our divided world closer together. Jackie’s debut drew a huge crowd to that great ballpark with its ivy walls and iconic center-field scoreboard. We were lucky to get tickets in the upper deck, as the paid crowd was 46,572, a record, with an estimated twenty thousand congregated outside, near the intersection of Clark and Addison. …

"I didn’t want the game to end, but it did, and afterward Sidney returned Herb and me to Union Station, to catch the North Shore train home. None of us would ever forget what we experienced that day. On the ride home, I felt so many emotions -- not only was I a little wiser from my time in the upper deck, but I could see plain as day that even though Jackie had gone hitless, he was a great player whose presence was going to change baseball."

Selig was right about that, and as MLB Commissioner, it was his call in 1997 to retire Robinson’s uniform No. 42 across baseball, an unprecedented tribute in professional sports. Selig instituted Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 in 2004, and since '09 every player on the field has worn Robinson’s number in games on that date.

Many times during his tenure as Commissioner and beyond, Selig referred to baseball as not only a game, but as “a social institution.”

His first inkling of that impact came on the train on May 18, 1947.

"It took this extraordinary man, with the aid of his wife and family, to go through, I guess what we'll never really know," Selig said. "He set the path for changes not only in sports, but in society. He didn't fail, although most people wanted him to fail, and so we celebrate all this as we should.

"Why do we celebrate? Because no generation should ever forget what Jackie Robinson did. So that every young player not only knows who Jackie Robinson is, but understands what Jackie did for him. All the great players who followed, they came because Jackie Robinson not only succeeded, but succeeded in a way that paved the way for others."