April 15 means a couple of things to some people. Of course, there is the unpleasant connotation of it as being Tax Day, the due date for income tax filing here in the USA. But for the baseball fan, it is a date that marks the first day a black player took the field as a major leaguer, when a special player ran out to play first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947. This young black man was athletically gifted, smart and tough-minded.
That player was of course Jackie Robinson.
Major League Baseball now honors him on this day every year, Jackie Robinson Day, with every player on every team putting aside their own uniform numbers to wear his number 42, which is now retired throughout baseball. Currently, only Mariano Rivera wears the number 42 on his back and after he retires at the end of this season, no player will ever wear the 42 on their back again outside of this day each year.
Retiring a number is a sacred thing in baseball. A player’s number has an almost mystical connection with the fans. Growing up, everyone knew that Babe Ruth was 3, Lou Gehrig 4, Mickey Mantle 7, Willie Mays 24, Hank Aaron 44 and on an on. Whenever I see the number 45 all I see is my hero Bob Gibson on the mound. And everyone , even Mariano Rivera fans like myself, knows that the 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson.
There is also a new movie out that bears that number and it tells the story of Robinson’s initial turbulent year with the Dodgers. I haven’t seen it so I can’t really comment other than to say that it is a story that every child should know. It is a remarkable story of self restraint and strength in the face of institutionalized hatred, one that made possible the broader changes that took place in our country in the civil rights movement in the decades after Robinson’s first day on that field in 1947.
From what I have read, the biggest complaint is that the movie doesn’t really give a full accounting of Robinson’s life. Jackie was a legendary collegiate athlete at UCLA, lettering in four sports– football, basketball, track and baseball. He was the NCAA champion in the Long Jump and could have easily played professional football. Of course, that was impossible because the NFL was segregated at that time as well.
Nor does it detail his military career which is of interest mainly for Robinson being court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus at Ft. Hood, Texas. He was eventually acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel of officers but it was an incident that foretold of his strength and willingness to enter the fight in taking on the segregated major leagues.
Nor does it address the health problems that led to his early death. He suffered from diabetes and was nearly blind when he had a heart attack that ended his life at the age of 53. It was much too early for this remarkable man’s story to end.
As I said, it’s a story that every child should know and celebrate.