Each year on April 15, every player in baseball wears number 42 instead of their own. They do it to remember the courage of Mr. Jack Robinson. They do it to honor his memory, and to show their gratitude for his sacrifice. Mr. Robinson integrated the national pastime, an act of real-life heroism that started the United States on the inexorable road to liberty and justice for all.
Game Called Due to Snow!
I was going to go to the game on April 15, but baseball in the spring is a tricky proposition. Sure enough, the game was snowed out! So I watched the Dodgers game on television instead. Why the Dodgers? Because Mr. Robinson was a Dodger. Besides, I knew legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully would tell some good stories.
Damocles of the Dodgers
During the second inning, while Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley struggled to get the third out, Scully told the story of Damocles. Dionysius was the king, Scully said, and noticed that Damocles was awfully enamored of the privileges accorded a king. Dionysius said, “Let’s make you king for the day, and we’ll see how you like it.” He arranged a great feast for Damocles. At the head of the opulent table, Dionysius placed a throne. And as Damocles took his seat on that throne, he realized that just above his head was a great sword, hanging by one single horse hair. Damocles got the picture.
So if a pitcher is in a precarious position, Scully said, we might say that he’s pitching under the sword of Damocles. And just after Scully called Billingsley "Damocles of the Dodgers," on the very next pitch, the batter hit a three-run homer.
Facing a Death Threat with Laughter
Every year on Jackie Robinson Day, Scully tells the story of the trip to Cincinnati when Robinson received a very serious death threat. It was so serious that the FBI had sharpshooters positioned in a number of places in and around the baseball field. The tension, as you can imagine, had everyone on edge, and you can't win ballgames when you're tense.
So the team had a pre-game meeting, looking for a way to relax. And at that meeting outfielder Gene Hermanski said, "I've got it! I know what we'll do. We'll all wear 42, and no one will know who's Jackie Robinson." Scully says that cracked everyone up, which broke up the tension.
Seeing the Movie “42”
That line made it into the movie “42,” currently in theaters. The movie tells the story of the men who integrated baseball, men like Jack Robinson, Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, manager Leo Durocher, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, and the villain of the piece, Phillies Manager Ben Chapman. Yes, that line made it into this wonderful movie, but placed in a different context and stripped of its humor. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that the day has come. Each year in April, every player wears the number 42, to honor Mr. Robinson. It’s one of the many wonderful ways that baseball remembers one of the greatest of all true stories of courage.
At Dodgers stadium this year, the number 42 was everywhere. It wasn’t just on the player’s jerseys. It was on the mound and in the dugout. The players even had 42 on their shoes. Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp, and a number of other black players around the majors, also wore their pants pulled up in a salute to their forebears in the Negro Leagues. Juan Pierre, currently with the Miami Marlins, has done this his entire career.
Let’s All Wear 42!
If I understood Scully correctly, they gave out badges bearing the number 42 to the fans at Dodger Stadium as well, in order to ensure that truly everyone wore 42. I'm so inspired by that. I'm going to get a number 42 jersey and wear it every year on Jackie Robinson Day. For years I’ve seen the players all wear 42, but it never occurred to me that I could -- and should -- do it too.
I hope we can all show the courage of Mr. Robinson. I hope we can sacrifice and play hard and play the game right in the face of terror and intimidation. I know I want to follow his example. It's certainly not easy! But I figure I owe it to him, and to everyone who sacrificed to show us the simple truth that we are a human family.
The Next Generation
I heard that outfielders Curtis Granderson (Yankees) and Adam Jones (Orioles) both took groups of kids to see the movie. Do you have kids? Have you taken them to see “42”? This might be their first encounter with Mr. Robinson and the racism he fought. What was their reaction?