"A version of this story was originally published in April 2020."
Had things gone a little differently nearly two decades earlier, the number might not have even been available for Rivera.
Reggie Jackson was presented with a No. 42 jersey at his introductory press conference in December 1976 after signing a free-agent deal with the Yankees. Jackson, who wore No. 9 in Baltimore and Oakland, couldn’t take that number in New York, where Graig Nettles already wore the digit.
Jackson initially planned to wear 42 in honor of Robinson, The Sporting News reported at the time, even inviting Robinson's widow, Rachel, to attend his Yankees signing.
When Jackson reported to Spring Training in 1977, however, he decided to wear No. 20 in honor of the recently retired Frank Robinson. Jackson switched to No. 44 early that spring as a tribute to Hank Aaron, who had also retired after the 1976 season.
“He preserved [No. 42] for me,” Rivera said with a laugh.
Rivera said he was initially given No. 58 by Yankees clubhouse manager Nick Priore, though he never appeared in a game wearing the number. Priore later switched Rivera to 42, which the pitcher would go on to wear in each of the 1,115 regular-season games -- plus 96 postseason contests -- he appeared in during his Hall of Fame career.
“I didn’t ask for it,” Rivera said. “It was given to me.”
At the time, players all around the Majors were wearing the number. It had not been retired by any team other than the Dodgers, who honored Robinson by hanging up No. 42 at Dodger Stadium in 1972.
Sixteen other Yankees had worn the number prior to Rivera, the most notable being former All-Star second baseman Jerry Coleman, who won four World Series rings during a nine-year career (1949-57) in pinstripes. Righty Domingo Jean, who pitched in 10 games for the Yankees in 1993, had been the most recent player to wear No. 42 before it was assigned to Rivera.
A 25-year-old kid from Panama, Rivera hadn’t had much exposure to the history of the game to that point, so he didn’t know the significance of his uniform number. It wasn’t until April 15, 1997, when MLB retired No. 42 league wide in Robinson’s honor, that Rivera first began to understand the importance of the digits on his back.
“I was really naïve when it came to statistics, the people that had played the game; I was just happy to play the game and do the best I could to help the team win,” Rivera said. “People were talking about Jackie, making such a big move to retire the number, so I decided I better learn about him and understand what he was all about, what he did.”
At the time Robinson’s number was retired, 13 active players were wearing No. 42. Those players were grandfathered in to continue wearing it for the remainder of their careers, but it would never be assigned again once they were all retired.
One by one, those players -- a list that included 1995 American League MVP Award winner Mo Vaughn and All-Star pitcher Jose Lima -- left the game. When Vaughn retired at the end of the 2003 season, Rivera was the lone 42 remaining in the Majors.
“I was blessed that as the years went by, people wearing that number kept retiring and I kept going to the point that I was the last one standing,” Rivera said. “At that point, it was even more demanding, the amount of responsibility I had wearing that number. That was real pressure.
“I wanted to make Mr. Jackie Robinson proud of the legacy that he left us. Me, being the last No. 42, doing it in a great arena as New York, I was thankful for the legacy he left for us to continue and pushing it forward, passing it down to the next generation.”
In 2004, Commissioner Bud Selig declared that April 15 would become Jackie Robinson Day, creating an annual celebration of the pioneer’s impact on the game and the country.
Three years later, Ken Griffey Jr. sought permission from Rachel Robinson to wear No. 42 on April 15 to honor the 60th anniversary of Jackie’s debut. Griffey’s request was granted, which led to more than 150 players -- including five entire teams -- sporting the number on Jackie Robinson Day that season.
By 2009, all uniformed personnel would wear No. 42 every year on Jackie Robinson Day. Rivera, who had been the only player wearing the number for more than five years by that point, said April 15 quickly became one of his favorite days on the calendar.
“I loved those days; everyone was wearing my jersey,” Rivera said. “We could all celebrate his life and legacy together.”
Rivera said he thought about Robinson “often” throughout his career, especially during his final season in 2013.
“Every day, I was thankful to God first, and then to Jackie for leaving us that legacy,” Rivera said. “I knew that the job I was working and doing was done. I believe Jackie was smiling, saying it was greatly done.”
Rachel Robinson often praised Rivera for his values, grace and principles throughout the years, saying that he represented her late husband as well as anybody could have. In 2014, just months after he hung up No. 42 for good, Rivera was honored by the Jackie Robinson Foundation, receiving the ROBIE Humanitarian Award. Along with her daughter, Sharon, Rachel presented the award to Rivera.
“I was thankful,” Rivera said. “I was thankful for her to allow me to be a part of something special.”
When Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, he became Cooperstown’s first No. 42. Bruce Sutter joined him there in 2006, while Rivera’s unanimous election in 2019 made him the third -- and final -- No. 42 to land in the Hall.
“I don’t think someone could have written a script like that,” Rivera said. “Jackie being the first, me being the closer, being the last one, it was so great. His legacy will be carried forever. No one will ever wear the number again, but every year, once a year as long as baseball exists, everybody will be able to wear the No. 42. That is something special. That says a lot about the man, what he went through, what he did and what he stood for. We have to honor that.”