New York Mets and the legacy of Jackie Robinson’s number 42

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: Wilmer Flores
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 15: Wilmer Flores /

On April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day to honor the legendary man and player. The New York Mets have a special connection to him.

Jackie Robinson retired when the Dodgers still played in Brooklyn. He retired rather than accept a trade to the hated New York Giants. He was working for Chock Full o’ Nuts (that heavenly coffee) when the New York Mets came into existence to fill the void when the Dodgers and Giants skedaddled west. By most accounts, he had little interaction with the Mets in the last 10 years of his life, which was the first decade of the Mets’ existence. Yet today they seem forever linked.

The Robinson Rotunda is how most fans enter Citi Field for the first time. Images of him cover the ceiling. His large blue “42” is a photo op. Much has been said about his overwhelming presence at Citi Field—a Dodger overshadowing the Mets. That’s OK. He overshadows most players.

If you believe that baseball is more than a game, Jackie Robinson is your Exhibit A. At a time when African-Americans were not allowed to attend the same schools, use the same bathroom, or ride in the same section of a bus as whites in most parts of the country, Robinson took the field for Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. Others followed. Teams regulated the number of blacks coming into the game. For years the unwritten rule was that it was OK to have a black player in your lineup, but your bench players should be white.

That kind of backward thinking kept the talented Ed Charles in the minor leagues for 10 years. The Glider finally made the big leagues in 1962—at age 28; the same age Jackie was when he debuted. Charles played more than 100 games every season, except for his last year in the majors, 1969, when he was still good enough to be the part of third base play.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 15: Wilmer Flores for the Miracle Mets

Charles was a disciple of Jackie Robinson. You might even remember him from the movie, 42, as the little kid who chased Robinson’s train and when it went out of sight, he listened to the rail. Robinson’s influence can still be heard.

Night games in Flushing can get cold and windy—see last week against Minnesota. When Shea Stadium was home, there were precious few games beyond Opening Day that drew big crowds. On April 15, 1997, a frigid Tuesday night, Shea Stadium was packed. It wasn’t just to see the 3-9 Mets play the so-so Dodgers.

The 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut was marked at Shea that night. It was a tough ticket. The place was jammed. Bad weather and flawed scheduling that week meant that the Mets season opener was an Easter Sunday doubleheader—the same day that Tiger Woods captured his historic first Master’s title at Augusta. The Mets were swept.

So Jackie Robinson Night was the de facto home opener. Whereas 22,000 were there for the doubleheader, 54,000 came to honor Jackie. I parked in the first spot I came across and was lucky to get it. I bought a knockoff tee shirt with Robinson’s image on it. Four years before 9/11, the line getting inside was interminable because metal detectors were in place.

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That’s because President Bill Clinton was there—on crutches, due to a knee injury. Jackie’s widow Rachel Robinson, was there, too. Acting Commissioner Bud Selig was seemingly an afterthought. Play stopped in the middle of the fifth inning—when the game became official—and Selig had the big surprise of the night: “Major League Baseball is taking the unprecedented step of retiring uniform No. 42 in perpetuity. … No. 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages.“

Selig got to say the words, but Leonard Coleman, then the NL president and future chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, came up the idea. Claire Smith, covering the event for the New York Times, recalled on the night’s 20th anniversary: “When he announced it, there was a collective gasp in the stadium, and around baseball. I was stunned,” she told Jayson Stark, then of ESPN. “Obviously, it had never been done before in Major League Baseball to universally retire one number. And in the four major sports, it had not been done. … Jackie Robinson is my hero. He’s why I write. And that was the most moving thing I’d ever seen on a baseball field.”

The number was 42 was revealed next to the other numbers above Shea’s left-field wall. Soon 42 would be on the wall at every ballpark. Players wearing number 42, including Mets right fielder Butch Huskey, would be allowed to continue wearing the number for the rest of their careers, but no new players could take that number. Sharon Robinson told Stark that when she went to other parks, she would listen to what people said when they asked why that number was on the wall and why it was a different color than the others.

“And I remember not saying anything, just because I wanted to hear people’s reaction to it,” she said. “It made me feel so good that it opened up discussion, because that’s what you really want.”

Once the dignitaries left the field, there was a game to be completed. While the stadium was still buzzing about the event, Lance Johnson, who set—and still holds—the Mets record for hits in a season (221), singled to knock in the first two runs of a 5-0 victory. From that night forward, the Mets went 84-64.

“It was not your average hit or your average night,” Johnson told Stark. “Emotionally, it was like this: Remember when Jose Fernandez died and then Dee Gordon came up and hit the home run, and he never hit home runs? His heart and his soul was into that game because he was playing for Fernandez. I know it’s not the same thing, but it was like that. I put my everything into that historical moment.”

I was at that game in Miami during the last week of the 2016 season. The game meant a lot to the Mets because they were trying to reach the postseason, but even for a dyed-in-the-wool fan, that felt secondary. Fernandez and Robinson were different types of men who lived in different centuries—Robinson was born 100 years ago; Fernandez was just 24 when he was killed in a boating accident. One thing they had in common was that they were willing to endure a lot for a chance to play major league baseball. One broke the color barrier; the other escaped from Cuba as a teenager after being jailed three times for trying to defect.

The night after his death, every Marlin wore Fernandez’s No. 16 jersey. Seeing that in Miami helped me better appreciate the ritual of everyone wearing 42 each April 15. It is one way we can all understand the risks it can take to reach the highest level. Of making sure everyone has a chance if they are good enough. That’s why the number is on the board.

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When someone not that familiar with baseball asks about that red 42, don’t just give a flippant answer. Choose your words. You never know, Sharon Robinson might be listening.

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