The Long Season of No. 42
Rivera's retirement closes book on baseball's hallowed number
Larry French is the first player in Major League Baseball history to wear its most sacred uniform number. Of course, he doesn't know it.
The 1932 season begins on April 12 at the corner of Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street in St. Louis, with an announced Opening Day crowd of 5,937 at Sportsman's Park. The hometown Cardinals are the defending World Series champions. French's Pittsburgh Pirates are in town, hoping to improve off a fifth-place finish the previous year.
In the bottom of the first inning, French, a 6-foot-1 left-hander from Visalia, Calif., who won 15 games in 1931 and will go on to win 197 before embarking on a career as a Navy captain and enjoying a quiet retired life in San Diego playing squash with his grandchildren, looks in at his catcher, Earl Grace.
French christens the '32 season with a pitch to St. Louis third baseman Sparky Adams. He doesn't think about the number on the back of his uniform, which will become the number of Jackie Robinson and the number of Mariano Rivera and the only number ever retired throughout all of baseball.
The years roll along.
Righty Curt Davis wins 48 games for the Phillies in his first three seasons wearing No. 42.
A Babe wears it, too, but this one's last name is Barna. He dons it for the 1943 Boston Red Sox.
And then there's George Jeffcoat, the last Dodger with a 42 on his back (1939), eight years before it's issued to the most legendary 42 of all.
The final draft of the screenplay of the 2013 movie "42" does not mention a focus on Robinson's uniform number until the following scene, written by Brian Helgeland, depicting the events of April 15, 1947:
JACK ROOSEVELT ROBINSON -- DODGER CLUBHOUSE
Looking at himself in a MIRROR. Standing in his uniform, the clean white wool, the flowing script: Dodgers. It fits.
We FOLLOW HIM past Stanky as he goes. Follow the BLUE 42 on his back as he steps through the clubhouse.
Jerry Coleman, the decorated Marine veteran who flew 120 combined combat missions in World War II and the Korean War, wins eight pennants as a New York Yankee from 1949-57. He wears the uniform No. 42 for his entire Major League career.
In his 2008 autobiography "An American Journey: My Life On the Field, In the Air, and On the Air," written with Richard Goldstein, Coleman, the adored Hall of Fame broadcaster for the San Diego Padres, boils it all down:
"I've always said this, though it sounds corny. There are only two important things in life: the people who you love and who love you, and your country."
They call him "The Professor." Maybe it's the glasses and maybe it's the wry sense of humor. Or maybe it's the fact that Jim Brosnan spends the entire 1959 season keeping a diary -- and not necessarily thrilling some onlookers in the process -- while pitching for the Cardinals and then, after a June 8 trade, for the Cincinnati Redlegs, where he donned the uniform No. 42.
Brosnan's journal turns into a book, "The Long Season," which garners late praise as a 10-year precursor to Jim Bouton's baseball bestseller, "Ball Four."
Famous sports writer Red Smith calls it, "a cocky book, caustic and candid and, in a way, courageous, for Brosnan calls him like he sees them, doesn't hesitate to name names, and employs ridicule like a stiletto."
Smith shortchanges Brosnan's elegance as a writer, which comes through in the following passage from the book's last pages:
That final look at the empty locker brings no smile to a ballplayer's face. No matter how successful his season, he must feel sad at the sight of his locker, finally swept bare of tangible remembrances of the long season. No more sweaty, dirty uniforms to hang there; no more fan letters, newspaper clippings, baseballs and other souvenirs to clutter the locker with his own personality. A ballplayer can stuff the shirts, the glove, and the souvenirs into a bag and take them home for the winter, but they lose some of their appeal when they're removed from the locker. It's their natural setting. They belong there.
In the summer of 2013, Brosnan's son, Jim Jr., accompanies his 83-year-old former-ballplayer-and-author dad to a showing of the movie "42" at a theater near their hometown of Morton Grove, Ill. Before they leave the house, Jim Jr. asks his father if he knows how the movie got its title.
"Sure I do," Jim Sr. says. "Jackie Robinson."
Then he pauses for a moment.
"I remember another guy that wore it, too."
Lots of guys end up wearing it. The list of big league 42s spans the alphabet, clear from Larry Andersen (Indians, 1975, '77, '79) to Frank Zupo (Orioles, 1957-58, 1961). There's a Beard (Dave, Tigers, 1989) and a Bird (Doug, Red Sox, 1983). There's a pair of Darwins (Bobby of the Red Sox from 1976-77 and Jeff of the Mariners in 1994), and they're not related, unless you believe in evolution, in which case we all are.
There's a Lemon (Bob, Indians, 1942) and a Lemongello (Mark, Astros, 1977-78). There's "The Bull" (Greg Luzinski, Phillies, 1970-71) and a Buck (Martinez, Royals 1973), plus a Chuck (Taylor, Cardinals from 1969-71 and Mets in '72), a Tuck (Stainback, Cubs, '34 and '37), a Skip (Lockwood of the Seattle Pilots in 1969 and Brewers from 1970-73) and a Doc (Medich, Yankees in 1972-73, Rangers from 1978-80).
There's a "Woody" (Kirk Rueter, Expos from '93-'96, Giants from '96-'97), a Biff (Pocoroba, Braves, 1975-76) and a "Hendu" (Dave Henderson from 1981-94 on the Mariners, Red Sox, A's and Royals). There's the McCoolest name in baseball, Billy McCool (Reds, '64-'68, Padres, '69).
There's the poetic, six-syllable stylings of right-hander and Mexican Hall of Famer Armando Reynoso (Braves in '91 and '92, Rockies from '93-'96). For Dominican fans out there, there's a Santo (Alcala of the Reds, 1976-77) and a Domingo (Jean, the last Yankee to wear 42 before the great Rivera, in 1993).
And then there's Wilfred Charles Siebert, more commonly known as Sonny, less commonly known as the first -- and only -- player wearing the No. 42 to throw a no-hitter in the big leagues.
It happens June 10, 1966, with Siebert pitching against the Washington Senators at Cleveland Stadium. It begins with a popout to third by Don Blasingame. It ends two hours and 13 minutes later with a flyout to left field by Bob Saverine. The Indians win, 2-0, and Siebert has a memory for a lifetime.
He'll have more, too. Siebert makes the All-Star team that year and gets a ring. While wearing the No. 42 for the 1971 Red Sox, he becomes the last AL pitcher to hit two homers in a game. While wearing No. 42 for the 1974 Cardinals, he gets the win in a 25-inning game, the second longest in innings played in National League history.
That year, he notices that his Hall of Fame-bound teammate, pitcher Bob Gibson, wears his No. 45 on a diamond-encrusted ring. Sonny can't afford something that fancy, but he's already got a ring from the '66 All-Star Game and wouldn't mind having one more -- one for his oldest son, Scott, and one for his youngest, Steve.
So Sonny Siebert heads to the local jeweler and gives him the specs.
"Now, I'll have two rings," Sonny says. "My boys can fight over 'em after I'm gone."
The No. 42 sees its share of fighters. There's Jackie, of course, who fights the hardest by not fighting at all. There's Curt Flood, who wears it in 1958 while with the Cardinals, 11 years before his refusal to accept a trade becomes a Supreme Court-bound appeal and helps usher in the era of free agency. There's Ron LeFlore, who wears the number in his rookie year with the Tigers in 1974 after first playing organized ball in Jackson State Penitentiary in Michigan while doing five-to-15 for armed robbery.
The No. 42 sees its share of characters, hellions of the hotfoot such as Andersen and Roger McDowell (Mets, 1985-89), and the late, great, eternal host of "Lima Time," right-hander Jose Lima, who enchants teammates and fans while wearing No. 42 with the Houston Astros (1997-2001) and Detroit Tigers (2001-02), occasionally dances and sings merengue songs, dyes his hair blond and passes away, far too young at 37, from a heart attack in 2010.
The No. 42 sees its share of good players and great players. There's Mo Vaughn (Red Sox, Angels and Mets from 1991-2003), the "Hit Dog" who wins the AL MVP Award in 1995 and clubs more career homers (328) than any other No. 42. There are Cooperstown hopefuls such as Alan Trammell (Tigers in 1977), Mike Mussina (Orioles in 1991) and Omar Vizquel (Mariners, 1989).
The No. 42 sees its share of real Hall of Famers, too. Jackie is the first to be inducted, in 1962. Tony La Russa, gets in in 2014 for his achievements in managing after wearing No. 42 as a player in 1971 with Oakland and in 1973. Rivera must wait until 2019, but he's a lock for first-ballot selection. And let's not forget Bruce Sutter, who donned No. 42 (Cubs from 1976-80, Cardinals from 1981-84, Braves in '88) while popularizing the split-fingered fastball. Sutter rides its devilish, diving action all the way to induction in 2006.
"All right," said Deep Thought. "The Answer to the Great Question …"
"Of Life, the Universe and Everything …" said Deep Thought.
"Is …" said Deep Thought, and paused.
"Yes …!!! … ?"
"Forty-two," said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
-- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1980
Ron Kittle is not even close to being in the Hall of Fame. He's OK with that.
Growing up in the tough town of Gary, Ind., as the son of James W. Kittle, an iron worker who loved baseball so much that he'd watch one game on TV while listening to another on the radio, Ron can't escape the game. Doesn't want to.
Jim Kittle is a man of mystery to his son, but there's nothing secretive about one thing he tells young Ron. The advice is simple: Be like Jackie Robinson, and not because of Jackie's courage or the social significance of what occurred in Brooklyn on April 15, 1947.
Ron knows Jim doesn't pay attention to the color of someone's skin, and he figures he might not even know who Robinson really is off the field. Ron knows Jim Kittle only cares about what happens on the field.
"If you want to play, play the right way," the father tells his son, pointing to the tube as old footage of Robinson is shown on a "This Week in Baseball" telecast. "Right there. No. 42," Jim says. "That's how you should play the game."
So as soon as he's able, Kittle puts a 4 and a 2 on his back, too.
Kittle wears it in the Minor Leagues when he's hitting 50 home runs for the Edmonton Trappers in 1982. The White Sox call him up Sept. 2 of that year, and he's wearing No. 42 when he wins AL Rookie of the Year Award and makes his only All-Star team the next season after hitting 35 homers and driving in 100 runs for the AL Central champs.
Kittle wants the number when he's traded to the Yankees in 1986, but it belongs to New York's third-base coach, Stump Merrill, who wants thousands for it. Same deal in Cleveland in 1988, so he sticks with No. 33 for a while. But he gets 42 back for the rest of his career, wearing it in Baltimore and twice more on the South Side.
A few years ago, Ron's sister, Linda, hands her brother a pile of Baseball Writers' Association of America scorebooks. She says she found them at their mom's house in Portage, Ind., and she doesn't know what to make of them.
Ron opens them up and peels away at least one layer of mystery. There, in the little blue boxes centered among the worn pages, is more of his father's handiwork: the running score of every one of Ron Kittle's 843 games in the Major Leagues.
Remember Butch Huskey?
He wore No. 42 with the Mets from 1995-98, the Mariners in 1999 and the Twins in 2000, all because one of his high school teachers back in Oklahoma gave him a book about Jackie Robinson.
Remember Jose Cano?
The right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic wore No. 52 in his six games in the big leagues for the 1989 Astros and finished up his cup of coffee by crafting a complete-game win. But his greatest co-creation was a son born on Oct. 22, 1982, a future big league star second baseman named Robinson. Named after Jackie.
Remember Ken Griffey Jr.?
He wore Nos. 24, 30, 3 and 17 during a career in Seattle, Cincinnati and Chicago that will land him in Cooperstown in 2016. But in 2007, 10 years after Jackie's 42 had been retired throughout all of baseball -- save for the 13 players, including Rivera, who were wearing it at the time and were allowed to keep doing so -- he came up with an idea: He'd wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, if Commissioner Bud Selig would allow it.
Griffey was allowed, and two years later, the Commissioner took Griffey's idea to everyone. Since 2009, all uniformed personnel, including umpires, wear No. 42 on April 15. That will include Robinson Cano, who honored the man for whom he was named by simply flipping the numbers around on his jersey, taking No. 24 while with the Yankees.
But when Cano signed with the Mariners in December 2013, he opted for No. 22 instead of 24, out of respect to the franchise icon named Griffey.
"He's a future Hall of Famer," Cano said. "You don't go to a Hall of Famer and ask, 'Can I use your number?' You have to show him respect."
In the ninth inning of Sept. 26, 2013, the final night of No. 42 in Major League history, 31-year-old right-handed relief pitcher Matt Daley is standing to the side of the Yankee Stadium bullpen door, fixed next to New York bullpen coach Mike Harkey, petrified to move his body even an inch.
He had been warming up next to his teammate, Mariano Rivera, during the eighth while Dellin Betances pitched to the Tampa Bay Rays.
He saw Rivera depart the bullpen with one out in that inning, heard the Metallica song for the last time, felt the crush of the crowd, and watched as the No. 42 on the back of the pinstriped jersey got smaller and smaller on the closer's final walk on the outfield grass to the mound.
And with two out in the ninth, Daley had gotten the call, and now he's standing next to Harkey, seeing Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte take Rivera out of the game, seeing Mo's raw emotion, with the embraces and the tears and all that love, all that history, and the last thing he wants to do, in any remotely conceivable way, is screw this up.
"What do I do here?" he asks Harkey.
"Stay right next to me until you see him walk off."
In the dugout after the Yankees lose, 4-0, and nobody remembers or cares about the score or the result, Daley finds Rivera sitting by himself, still in the moment. He wants to say something. No, he has to say something.
"I know you've had a lot of special moments on the baseball field," he says. "But I just want you to know that this was the most special moment that I've ever been a part of in baseball."
Rivera, who wore the No. 42 for 19 years, longer than anyone in Major League history, looks up at Daley and smiles.
"Good job," he says.
It's only a matter of time before Howie Kendrick frames the jerseys.
They're sitting in the Angels second baseman's house and he just hasn't gotten around to doing it, but he knows how important they are. It's only a matter of time before they're encased and among the centerpieces of his sports memorabilia room.
One is his first No. 42 from Jackie Robinson Day in 2009, the only one he kept, with the ones in the ensuing years, including the one he'll wear this April 15 in Oakland, having been signed and donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
The other is a Yankees jersey from the World Series, with pinstripes, a familiar, legendary number stitched to the back, and something written in neat black marker.
It reads, "Mariano Rivera. The last to wear 42."