Eighty-Sixed: Remembering Jackie Robinson's No. 42
I wrote the following for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. He did it on April 15, 1947, this piece appeared in April 1997, and 15 years later only one MLB player still regularly wears No. 42: Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, who may retire after this season.
Of course you can see No. 42, along with other retired numbers, in every ballpark across the country. You can see it on every ballplayer every April 15, when they all wear No. 42. It's also the working title of a Jackie Robinson biopic, starring Chadwick Boseman, currently in pre-production. But I still feel retiring No. 42 was a mistake. It's a hollow tribute to a great man...
Some friends and I were at the Kingdome a couple of years ago for a game between the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox. We sat on the first base side and had a pretty good view of first baseman Mo Vaughn as he held a runner on. Specifically we had a good view of Mo's monumental back. And it made us wonder.
Did Mo wear No. 42 because of Jackie Robinson?
We began to notice the number on other ballplayers: Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, Tom Goodwin of the Royals, Seattle's own Mike Jackson. I admit that I assumed that the ballplayer shared the fan's sense of baseball history and chose the number for a reason; that everyone knew what it meant.
In no other sport are numbers so sacred. To the baseball fan, 3 means Babe Ruth. 7 Mickey Mantle. 21 is Roberto Clemente, 24 Willie Mays, 44 Henry Aaron. I wrote a short story once, a revisionist look at the Garden of Eden, which began, “On the 29th day, Adam and Eve were bored silly.” My writing class came up with various highfalutin reasons why I chose “29” but eventually I owned up to my pedestrian reasoning: it was Rod Carew's number. That's what 29 means to me. That's what 29 will always mean to me.
Similarly I associate 42 and Jackie Robinson.
Now it's gone. Major League Baseball, in attempting to honor the man who broke the color barrier, has retired the number across the board. No one will ever be issued No. 42 again. Players currently bearing the number can keep it for the time being. But once they're gone, it's gone.
This is true of clubs that weren't even around when Jackie Robinson played. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays don't even exist yet but they already have a retired number.
It's as if No. 42 is being erased from the game.
This wasn't true of the first retired number. That one belonged to Lou Gehrig, who, in the midst of a magnificent, gentlemanly career, was cut down by the disease that now bears his name. The circumstances were so heartbreaking that something special was required. But it wasn't Major League Baseball who retired No. 4; it was the New York Yankees. In effect, they retired his uniform. They were saying that no one else, no matter how good they are, will be fit to wear Gehrig's uniform. And they were right.
Number 4 for the Padres isn't Lou Gehrig. It may be Gehrig's number, it may even be a player wishing to emulate Lou Gehrig, but it's not Lou Gehrig. But at least the number, particularly on a good, stocky first baseman, will remind us of Lou Gehrig--the way that Mo Vaughn reminded us that day of Jackie Robinson.
This is what's so awful about the banishment of 42 from baseball. A link to baseball's past is being cut off. When Ken Griffey Jr. glides back to catch a ball, he evokes images of Willie Mays not simply because of his grace but because of the number on his back. Any number 44 sending one deep reminds us for a moment of Henry Aaron.
Listen to Mo Vaughn on the subject. He has been described by Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, as the modern player who most fully keeps her late husband's legacy alive. He is as ferocious on the field as he is charitable off it. So when Butch Huskey of the Mets, who also wears 42 to honor Robinson, asked what to do about pressure from the Players Union to stop wearing it, Vaughn told him to ignore them.
“Keep the legacy alive as long as you play,” Vaughn said.
Keep the legacy alive. Because once they stop wearing the number, the legacy is...dead?
Is this how Major League Baseball pays tribute to Jackie Robinson? With a hollow homage that prevents players from honoring Robinson in their own way? Some honor.