Retiring No. 42 one of baseball's greatest moments
April 15, 1997: The magnificent night at New York's Shea Stadium when Jackie Robinson's No. 42 was retired throughout Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig.
Robinson breaking our national pastime's rigid color barrier in 1947 is without debate one of MLB's most significant historic events. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of that moment remains a cherished event in our national pastime's timeline.
The highly publicized release this week of the movie "42" and with Jackie Robinson Day just around the corner, memories of that inspirational night at Shea Stadium have been rekindled.
The passing of time has a way of making us forget the significance of crucial moments in our history.
Major League Baseball refused to let that happen, insuring that the legacy and impact of Jackie Robinson would live on. For me, it was like pressing the computer's "refresh" button -- a reawakening of sorts.
I was only 10 on April 15, 1947 when 28-year-old Jackie, wearing his baggy Brooklyn Dodgers baseball suit with 42 on the back, took the field at Ebbets Field and became the first African-American to play the then white man's game.
My father, a champion for minority causes, lectured me about how important this was -- not just for baseball, but a positive course for the future.
Those words were remembered that night at Shea -- during the on-field ceremonies at the end of the fifth inning in the Mets-Dodgers game -- and during a conversation with President Bill Clinton in a quiet room an hour before the first pitch.
"This is an important night for America," Clinton said. "When Jackie Robinson broke into baseball it was a milestone. It was a milestone for sports, but also a milestone in the 50-year effort that really began at the end of World War II to change America's attitudes on the question of race. It was not long after that President Truman signed an order to desegregate the military.
"Soon after, the first African-American player entered professional basketball -- a whole series of things happened, and they were triggered by Jackie Robinson."
Robinson died in 1972 at age 53.
There could not have been a better reminder of what Robinson meant to baseball than by permanently retiring 42 throughout the sport. On April 15, 1997 there were 13 players still wearing the number and they were allowed to keep it.
Today, only the Yankees' Mariano Rivera has it and he's retiring at season's end. But 42 will forever be in the minds of even the youngest fans because it is displayed at every Major League ballpark.
And as Selig says, Jackie Robinson Day is more than a reminder of what 42 stands for. "Baseball's proudest moment was when Jackie took the field in 1947. Should it have come earlier? Certainly. There never should have been a barrier."
The idea to retire 42 was former National League president Len Coleman's.
"I wanted something not only with the past in mind, but the course it sets for the future," said Coleman, the highest-ranking African-American official in professional sports at the time. "I floated the idea to other baseball officials and it was ultimately Bud Selig's decision. In a sense, it not only honors Jackie's achievements, but I believe 42 will provide direction for the future."
Soon after came the establishment of Jackie Robinson Day, an annual tribute on April 15.
It seemed fitting that just two days before the 50th anniversary celebration at Shea, Tiger Woods walked the 18th fairway at Augusta in a record-breaking performance that made him the first African-American to win the Masters.
"Maybe if America looks tonight at baseball at its best, especially in light of this triumph by Woods, I think it will help people feel better about baseball," Clinton told me.
"It's a great 50-year story of the emergence of African-Americans in athletics and in the larger society of America. I think that's very, very important, not only what it did for baseball and other athletics, but how it was a seminal point in the way people felt about black Americans."
The Shea Stadium event triggered a season-long series of tributes at most every Major League stadium.
"I would have been disappointed if we had just celebrated [that one night]," said Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow. "We needed to use this opportunity to call attention to the contemporary changes."
When you make your next trip to a Major League ballpark look around -- on the outfield wall or another prominent place -- for the big No. 42.
Or as Len Coleman told me: "Now when young people walk into a ballpark and they ask Mommy or Daddy why is 42 retired, they will be told a story that goes far beyond the baseball diamond -- a constant reminder of Jackie Robinson, his unquestionable talent and his values."
It's more than a number.
Forty-two will live forever.