Today is the day that baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
All field personnel — players, managers and coaches — will again wear No. 42 in Robinson’s honor, an idea that’s credited to Ken Griffey Jr., pictured above with Mariner and Angels players before the Jackie Robinson Day game on April 15, 2009. In that game, Griffey was one of 12 major-leaguers to wear specially designed cleats featuring an engraving of Robinson sliding into home plate, and Robinson’s No. 42 stitched on each heel.
Griffey rose to the occasion, hitting his 613th career homer (No. 400 as a Mariner, his second since returning to the club) in an 11-3 win over Angels. And Ichiro, in his first game off the disabled list from an ulcer, hit a grand slam. The win was the Mariners’ sixth straight and lifted their record to 7-2. Ah, those were the days.
Griffey was actually the first player to wear No. 42 for a day in honor of Robinson, doing so on April 15, 1997 while with the Mariners for a game against Cleveland. That was the day in which commissioner Bud Selig announced that baseball was retiring No. 42 in Robinson’s honor on the 50th anniversary of his debut. Griffey told reporters back then that the Jackie Robinson Foundation called his agent in spring to ask if he would considering wearing 42 (a reversal of his 24) all season in 1997.
“I talked to my dad and he told me numbers are special,” Griffey said. “This is Jackie’s number, not mine. I wanted to wear it for him (for one game) for all he did for the game.”
Griffey wore his pants legs high and blacked out the Nike swoosh on his shoes and collar.
“This is the way he wore his uniform and his shoes, but, if he had had a shoe contract, it would’ve been Nike,” Griffey said — and the news reports said he winked.
Flash forward 10 years to 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut, when Griffey, then with the Reds, called up Selig and Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, to again request wearing No. 42 for the day. That idea prompted Selig, two years later, to have all players wear the number.
Mariano Rivera is the last player still active wearing No. 42 permanently. All players who were wearing No. 42 when it was retired in 1997 were given the option of keeping the number. Those players were Mo Vaughn (Red Sox), Tom Goodwin (Royals), Rivera, Mike Jackson (Indians), Scott Karl (Brewers), Marc Sagmoen (Rangers), Dennis Cook (Marlins), Butch Huskey (Mets)< Jose Lima (Astros), Kirk Rueter (Giants) and Jason Schmidt (Pirates).
Sagmoen (who is from Kennedy High School in Burien) had an interesting story. He was called up from the minors and made his major-league debut on April 15, 1997, the day Selig announced No. 42 was being retired. That happened to be the number he was issued for his first game, in which he made two outstanding catches, walked with the bases loaded, and was given the game ball by teammate John Wetteland after a win over the White Sox.
The next day, Sagmoen switched to No. 37, even though technically he could have kept it under the grandfather clause.
“I just didn’t think it would be right,” he told reporters. “I thought it would be better to retire it now. It was nice to wear it for one game, but I wouldn’t have felt right to wear it every game.”
Sagmoen had actually been in the on-deck circle when the scoreboard in Arlington ran a clip of Selig announcing the decision to retire Robinson’s number.
“If he had been in the dugout, we would’ve torn the jersey off his back,” Rangers manager Johnny Oates said after the game.
Here’s a nice video package from MLB of players and executives giving tributes to Robinson.