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Yankees Magazine: The Final 42

Mariano Rivera was the last player to wear baseball's most iconic number. Jackie Robinson's daughter, Sharon, reflects on a worthy steward of her father's legacy
Yankees Magazine

When you're on Mariano Rivera's level, you get to choose your own legacy. Widely regarded as the greatest reliever in baseball history, a surefire Hall of Famer and a franchise icon, Rivera could dine out on any of his achievements -- the 652 saves, the countless successes on the October tightrope, the single unhittable pitch he built a career around -- for the rest of his life. But Rivera serves a higher purpose.

The Panamanian legend lives by the adage that "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," as Jackie Robinson famously said. So Rivera -- who was issued No. 42 in 1995, two years before Bud Selig, then baseball's acting commissioner, retired it league-wide -- has dedicated his life to charitable causes.

When you're on Mariano Rivera's level, you get to choose your own legacy. Widely regarded as the greatest reliever in baseball history, a surefire Hall of Famer and a franchise icon, Rivera could dine out on any of his achievements -- the 652 saves, the countless successes on the October tightrope, the single unhittable pitch he built a career around -- for the rest of his life. But Rivera serves a higher purpose.

The Panamanian legend lives by the adage that "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," as Jackie Robinson famously said. So Rivera -- who was issued No. 42 in 1995, two years before Bud Selig, then baseball's acting commissioner, retired it league-wide -- has dedicated his life to charitable causes.

As his career neared its end, and in the years since, Rivera and his charitable foundation have donated millions to support children in Panama, also helping to build churches in Panama, Mexico and Puerto Rico. His passion project was the renovation of a long-vacant church in New Rochelle, New York, that was more than 100 years old. His wife, Clara, is now the senior pastor at the restored house of worship.

 

"I carried the legacy of Mr. Jackie for all these years, and I tried to do my best to wear No. 42 and do it with class and honor," Rivera said during a 2013 press conference when he announced that he would retire following that season. "Being the last player for us to wear No. 42 is a privilege."

Now, the No. 42 comes out only on April 15, Jackie Robinson Day, when all players and coaches throughout the league wear the number in Robinson's honor. And despite a rivalry between the Yankees and Dodgers that came to a head during Robinson's time in Brooklyn, the pioneer has a rightful spot in Monument Park. Yankees fans can effectively merge Rivera's and Robinson's places in the game and the world, and Jackie's daughter, Sharon, appreciates that convergence. She spoke with Yankees Magazine about the legendary Yankees reliever, her father's legacy and how the two intersect.

What does the No. 42 mean to you?

It means Jackie Robinson; it means baseball; it means sharing an important milestone in American history with future generations of younger kids.

Is there a more resonant, iconic image in the game than that number? Even MLB's silhouetted batter logo -- does the No. 42 stand above it in some ways?

It didn't always, but it has grown to mean that, and a great deal of that is due to Commissioner Selig, and also, since he began his tenure, to Commissioner [Rob] Manfred. We used to love the fact that there were players wearing his number in tribute, and to see it get retired and then to see it come out with all on-field personnel during Jackie Robinson Day, and having Mariano being the last person to wear it -- you know, it couldn't have been a better person. [My family has] such admiration for him as a person, as well as an athlete.

Do you ever miss the days when players could honor your father's legacy by choosing to wear his number all season long?

No, because of Jackie Robinson Day. It is wonderful to see them all wearing it, so I think that brings it back onto the field in a special way and it keeps it memorialized in a unique way. So I think if it wasn't worn at all, I might feel that it would get lost out there on the field and maybe kids wouldn't recognize that it's different than the other numbers. But I think by attaching it to Jackie Robinson Day, we bring it right back out every year.

Now that players can't wear No. 42 year-round, what are some of the ways that you find different players offering tributes to your father?

Some of them have [established] scholarships with the Jackie Robinson Foundation. A number of them have done events with the Breaking Barriers in Sports, in Life program that we do with Major League Baseball and Scholastic; that's also tied to Jackie Robinson. They don't get to come to many of our Jackie Robinson Foundation events because those usually happen during the season, so we tend to get more retired players than current players. But they come up and they acknowledge us and talk about how happy they are to see us still very much a part of the game. I think the movie 42 enhanced that relationship, too, because there were players and coaches that said, "I thought I understood it," but having it depicted, having it being so visual through a movie, they just understood it better than they had in the past. I think what's also been good is seeing how the Latino players have embraced their connection to the breaking of the color barrier because they understand that the color barrier kept them out of Major League Baseball, as well.

Video: Sharon Robinson talks about Breaking Barriers contest

What's it like for you every April 15 when you see 42s all across the diamond?

It is surreal, you know! I love it. I have a couple of images in my home, where I have Mom on the field and in the background all of the players in uniforms that say 42. So, it's pretty amazing to me. It doesn't get old; it always brings a deep emotion, and it's quite powerful. It gets a little funny when they start announcing 42 this, 42 that, so we have a good time with it.

But among the Yankees, the number has two meanings. Why is Mariano Rivera such a great steward for your father's legacy?

I'm proud that he wore it. He was such a dignified person with such a commitment to community, so I felt like he represented Jackie Robinson, as well as himself, in a positive light.

Your family was invited to Dodger Stadium to throw out the first pitch prior to Game 1 of the 2017 World Series -- which was nearly a Yankees-Dodgers matchup. What would that have meant, given your father's history against the Yankees?

We were hoping for it, are you kidding? I mean, it all turned out fine. I'm sorry the Dodgers lost, but they played a great series. My brother, [David], happened to be in from Tanzania, and we had a bet of who was going to throw the worst pitch -- and you know I threw the better pitch so he still owes me $5! But it was really a special moment.

What does it mean to have your father recognized among the titans of Yankees history -- as well as other historical figures, such as Nelson Mandela and the popes who have celebrated Mass at Yankee Stadium -- in Monument Park?

It means that these people, whether they're ballplayers or leaders of countries and leaders of movements, all helped change America for the better, and of course we're thrilled with this. We're New Yorkers, so to be honored both at Yankee Stadium and at Citi Field is really a testament to our deep connection to not just Brooklyn, but all of New York.

What have been the most memorable moments for you over the last two decades, since the ceremony at Shea Stadium with President Bill Clinton to retire the No. 42 league-wide?

A couple things: It would have to be when President [Barack] Obama hosted a showing of 42 at the White House, and certainly the Shea Stadium ceremony. Those two moments were the biggest and had the greatest impact.

Are you ever conflicted about whether to think of your father as a baseball player or a civil rights era icon?

No. I write books for kids, so I'm always helping them to understand that period. And part of what I love about my dad was how he mostly moved, once he retired from baseball, into the civil rights movement. He brought that into the family, and he made it part of the family legacy. I grew up more with him as a civil rights activist and a fundraiser for the movement, so now I get to understand the baseball years better because I'm having to write about it and interpret it for kids, then put it together with the father I knew. And I just love the consistency of the man, how his life wasn't long in terms of today's standards but it was so powerful, and he made use of every moment and opportunity and was always very committed to the advancement of equality and justice in America. I like the whole person now, probably better than I liked it as a kid, because as a kid you would like to have him be a father and that be the most important thing that he does. But truthfully, I very much respect the total person.

Video: STL@NYY: Jackie Robinson Day celebrated in New York

How strong was your mother, Rachel, through all of this, and is there a Jackie without a Rachel?

She is incredibly strong. I just look in the last two years how she's battled health things, and she rebounds like she's a young woman and she comes back fighting. You know, he is an individual, he's a great athlete and all of that. Does he grow to where he's grown today? Absolutely not. Did he need her partnership in order to excel in baseball under such pressure? Absolutely. Did he need her love and devotion at all times? My father was very dependent on her, absolutely. So, yeah, I guess it's hard to say there wouldn't be one person without the other, but they were a true partnership and they both grew from it. It reinforced each of their strengths.

A lot of the ways that your father experienced racism would seem totally foreign to today's kids, but there are other ways that they might encounter adversity in their lives. How do you connect the old stories with today's world?

Well it actually becomes bullying for the present, therefore kids can relate to it. How do you respond to the bully, you know? So it gives you a very direct connection to Jackie Robinson and what's happening with today's kids.

The racism part is very complex now; it used to be a black and white issue in America. Now it's so complex so I really teach that there are people who believe they are better than others, and we have to prove that we are equal and therefore have a society that's diverse and supports people of different faiths and different religions and different races. So it just becomes a more global perspective on it, I guess you'd have to say.

Are you optimistic?

Despite everything, yeah. Right now, it's painful. I am optimistic for the future. I feel like some of the current backlash will help support a stronger future because people will see it all better now and say, "Oh, I don't want to go back to that." Or yes, we do have segregated schools again and we don't want that to be the world we're raising our grandchildren in because we saw it as kids. So, I am optimistic and I think kids are forced to reckon with so much more and deal with reality, and they've got to be asking themselves or their parents how they fit into this. And so many more kids are reaching out and raising money or sending supplies. All of that is activism, and much more so than my generation had as children. My generation got very active in the civil rights movement and many of them were children, but now kids are being active globally and I think that's very exciting.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Monument Park Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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