NEW YORK (AP) — On Jackie Robinson Day, all of baseball joined Yankees closer Mariano Rivera in wearing the cherished No. 42.
Everyone in uniform had Robinson’s number on their jerseys Thursday, honoring the 63rd anniversary of the day he broke baseball’s color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Major League Baseball retired 42 on the 50th anniversary in 1997, but allowed players who already had it to wear the number until they finished their career. Rivera is the only player to still have it, and is distinctly aware of what it means.
“It’s a privilege, an honor, to be the last one to wear 42, it’s a blessing for me,” the New York closer said. “I definitely have a job to do to represent him well.”
In a brief ceremony before the Yankees hosted the Los Angeles Angels, Robinson’s widow, Rachel, their daughter, Sharon, and two medical school students on scholarships provided by the Jackie Robinson Foundation were honored near home plate.
A tribute to his legacy was shown on the videoboard and the Yankees’ Robinson Cano and Marcus Thames presented Rachel Robinson with a bouquet of flowers. When the public address announcer introduced the starting lineups, every player was “number 42.”
Robinson’s grandson, Jesse Simms, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
Around the league, there was an outpouring of respect and admiration for the man who on April 15, 1947, transformed America’s pastime — and so much more in the era before the civil rights movement.
“Without Mr. Robinson I wouldn’t be sitting here and President Obama would not be president of the United States,” Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said in Toronto. “If you really go back and look at this, Mr. Robinson started all this before even Martin Luther King. He went through a lot to make it better for myself and minorities. This is the guy that got it rolling for everybody.”
Throughout the majors, each club autographed a No. 42 jersey that will be auctioned with the proceeds going to the Jackie Robinson Foundation, founded by Rachel Robinson in 1973, a year after he died.
Even though he was a New York Giants fan growing up in Brooklyn, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre understood Robinson’s importance.
“He really changed baseball. To me, it’s something we should never forget. And I’m happy that Major League Baseball is certainly never going to let it go away,” Torre said in Los Angeles. “They retired No. 42, and I think it’s a great tribute to him — not only as a player, but the individual he was.”
Clubs that did not play Thursday will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on Friday, and the Dodgers will wear jerseys with No. 42 on the back both days.
Longtime Dodgers announcer Vin Scully felt privileged to watch in person when Robinson wore it.
“I remember in spring training of 1950, and traveling with him was quite an adventure. We would play in the Deep South, and the black fans would come by the numbers in these small ballparks, and they would be standing in the roped-off outfield,” Scully said Thursday night.
“And when Jackie would be shagging flies or taking infield, he was very sensitive to the behavior of the black fans. Some of them overcelebrated his arrival, and Jackie was quite upset at them and would lecture them: ‘This is not what it’s all about.’ And it was remarkable that he could do that, still play and play well,” he said. “But he was so socially aware of the attitudes and the behavior of the black fans. It had to be tough for him. He received threatening letters and all that stuff.”
AP freelance writer Ian Harrison in Toronto contributed to this report.
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