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Jackie Robinson Day

Bob Klapisch pays tribute to Jackie Robinson and the Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, who was the last MLB player to wear Robinson’s No. 42—until his retirement in 2013. Known for his modesty, integrity, and faith, Rivera was widely thought to be a fitting bearer of Robinson’s legacy. 

By Bob Klapisch, April 15, 2018

Mariano Rivera may be the greatest relief pitcher in baseball. Surprisingly, he did not start pitching until the age of 19.
Courtesy: The Trading Card 

One of the perks of covering Mariano Rivera’s career was learning not just about his famed cut fastball, but about his soul. We spent many hours dissecting what mattered most to him. Winning championships was at the top of the list, but so were faith and the pursuit of man’s better angels.

I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving to wear Jackie Robinson’s No. 42. Rivera often spoke of Robinson’s courage in the face of unspeakable racism and the responsibility that came with being the last Major Leaguer to display that number on his jersey.

“It’s something I always considered an honor and a privilege,” Rivera told me shortly before his retirement in 2013. “To think about what Jackie went through, to continue that tradition meant people were looking at me. It was important to live up to that.”

Rivera paused and said, “That was pressure.”

More than any of his 652 careers saves? A tougher chore than recording a career 0.70 ERA in the postseason? The great right-hander shook his head and said, “There is no comparison. Jackie Robinson was a pioneer, he was the first [to break the color barrier]. I am not the first [Latino in the big leagues]. Many have come before me.”

He was talking about legends like Roberto Clemente, Juan Marichal, and Orlando Cepeda, who established a beachhead for Spanish-speaking players a generation earlier. All Rivera did was pitch, but he was a model of integrity and class, not just in the Yankees’ universe but throughout the game.

Rivera stood out from the others in his spirituality. Even Derek Jeter, a Yankee icon, deferred to Rivera’s higher calling. The captain used to say Rivera would’ve been a preacher had he not been blessed with such a unique pitch. But as effective as that cutter was, and as often as Rivera destroyed hitters unlucky enough to face him in the ninth inning, he never gloated. He dominated without ego or bling. He despised the gimmicks of other pitchers.

Instead, Rivera brandished his gift with respect. He considered his opponents fellow warriors who were part of the same entertainment phenomenon—everyone under the same tent. Rivera was kind and strong, not unlike Robinson himself. The similarities did not go unnoticed by the former Dodger great’s wife, Rachel, who spoke glowingly of Rivera in 2010. She was convinced the right man was still wearing her husband’s number.

“I believe there is integrity attached to it,” Mrs. Robinson told the New York Times. “And I would hope it would always represent individuals who stand up for the things they believe in. I know that the Latino population has suffered through many of the challenges we have as African-Americans, so to have someone who conducts himself in the way Mariano Rivera does, that’s what we want to teach our young people.”

Jackie Robinson was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, National League MVP in 1949, and World Series Champion in 1955.

Ironically, Rivera didn’t grasp the significance of that No. 42 when it was handed to him in the Yankees clubhouse in 1995, his rookie year. Lean as a greyhound and an unknown in the farm system, Rivera was focused on working his way up the depth chart, not furthering a civil rights cause. He had heard of Robinson, but didn’t know what the number represented.

That would soon change, of course. Major League Baseball would retire Robinson’s digits, grandfathering those who’d already claimed it prior to 1997. Among others wearing it at the time included Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox, the Mets’ Butch Huskey, as well as hurler Kirk Rueter of the Expos and Giants.

Though it wasn’t required, six of the 13 players wearing No. 42 voluntarily gave it up in 1997, including reliever Dennis Cook and outfielder Tom Goodwin. Little by little, the number faded away. When Vaughn retired in 2003, Rivera became the last to carry Robinson’s legacy.

By then MLB had gone far beyond a simple retirement of “42.” The idea of an annual industry-wide day in Robinson’s honor was first hatched in 2004, when festivities took place in all 23 ballparks where games were scheduled that day. It was an important—and impressive—threshold for the sport, as then-commissioner Bud Selig made the announcement along with Robinson’s daughter Sharon.

“I have often stated that baseball’s proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field,” Selig said.

“On that day, Jackie brought down the color barrier and ushered in the era in which baseball became the true national pastime. Fifty years after that historic event, in April 1997, I was proud to join Rachel Robinson and President Bill Clinton at Shea Stadium to honor Jackie by retiring his uniform number 42 in perpetuity. By establishing April 15 as ‘Jackie Robinson Day’ throughout Major League Baseball, we are further ensuring that the incredible contributions and sacrifices he made—for baseball and society—will not be forgotten.”

Jackie Robinson Day has manifested in a slightly different way every year since then. In 2005, Selig decreed April 15 as the date Robinson would be remembered by every team. In 2006 Rachel Robinson greeted the crowd at Shea Stadium along with then-Mets Manager Willie Randolph, who said, “I’ve got a picture of Jackie in my office. . . . I think about (him) every day.”

In 2009, all uniformed personnel, including players, managers, coaches, and umpires wore No. 42, the first time the industry had acted as one in Robinson’s memory. And just last year the Dodgers unveiled a bronze statute at Dodger Stadium’s left-field plaza, depicting Robinson sliding into home plate as a rookie.

Magic Johnson, the team’s co-owner, told reporters that day, “I’m more happy because of [Robinson’s] statue than the two I’ve got.”

That was no small endorsement, but the timelessness of the replica was breathtaking. On it are several of Robinson’s more famous quotes, including this one: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

It doesn’t end here or now. The Jackie Robinson Museum held its groundbreaking ceremony last April in New York City, with plans to finish construction by early 2019. If the stars are properly aligned, the doors will open to the public on April 15, baseball’s equivalent of a national holiday.

That would be just perfect for one of Robinson’s greatest admirers.

“Hopefully what Jackie did for baseball will be remembered by every generation in the future,” said Rivera. “He was a great man. That’s why when I wore his number, I did it thinking, ‘I have a lot to live up to.’ I hope I did.”

Jackie Robinson
Original Artwork:
Mark Ulriksen




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