Across Major League Baseball on Friday, number 42 will pitch to number 42. Number 42 will field the ball and throw to number 42 for the out. That’s how it works every year on April 15. It’s baseball’s way of commemorating probably the most important moment in the sport’s history on this day in 1947.
It is 75 years since Jackie Robinson first played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Without context, that is an unremarkable statement given that over 20,000 players have debuted in the century-and-a-half existence of the major leagues. But Jackie Robinson, unlike any who preceded him, was black.
Since the 1880s, baseball’s exclusively-white professional system had been supplemented by the separate Negro leagues, which themselves were largely independent and regionalised competitions until the formation of the Negro National League in 1920. The one certainty about baseball before the Second World War was that whites would play with whites, blacks with blacks.
Branch Rickey changed that. The Dodgers general manager and part-owner knew that there was no written statute forbidding black players from being signed by major league teams, despite that having become the accepted way of things for over 60 years. He also knew that the new Commissioner of Baseball, Happy Chandler, was a far greater proponent of racial integration than was his predecessor, Keneshaw Mountain Landis.
So after Rickey had seen what Jackie Robinson was capable of while playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro leagues, and then in a stint with the Dodgers affiliate Montreal Royals, it was announced on April 10, 1947 that Rickey had purchased the contract of Robinson and he was in line to break baseball’s colour barrier.
And so it was that, five days later, Robinson and the Dodgers made sporting history. Lining up at first base against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field with the now famous 42 on his back, Robinson’s debut was fairly uneventful. In his first at-bat he ground out to third baseman Bob Elliott, then flied out to left in the third. He would later ground into a double play and reach on an error, coming round to give the Dodgers the lead on a Pete Reiser double to right as the home side came from behind to win 5-3.
It might have been unspectacular as first impressions go, but it was historic all the same.
Robinson went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and by 1949 was being named the National League MVP after recording a .342 average with a league-high 37 stolen bases and 124 runs batted in. More than that, he paved the way for full integration.
Black players of repute were soon readily snapped up by major league teams and, by the 1950s, interest in the Negro leagues had diminished. The Negro American League’s closure in 1958 marked the end of segregation, and four years later Robinson entered the Hall of Fame. Just as he had on the field, the first base star had become the first man to enter baseball’s off-field history book.
There have been over 300 black Hall of Famers since Robinson and thousands more players of colour, but it has never been forgotten what Jackie did for the sport and for the USA in general. He was the one thrown into the firing line, receiving the abuse and dirty looks that came with being the only black person in a system built for whites. And yet he excelled.
First initiated in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day has become one of the most cherished days in the baseball calendar, held each year on the anniversary of his legendary debut. After the decision in 1997 to retire his number across all of baseball, it was agreed that this one day would see every single player wear 42 in recognition of Robinson’s unique place in sporting history.
At one point it appeared as though this particular Jackie Robinson Day might not happen, with the league’s lockout of the players prior to this season having at one point threatened much of the MLB calendar. But once again Robinson had a unifying presence. Fearing the loss of a landmark day on the 75th anniversary of the great man’s debut, the two sides came together to resolve the labour disagreement just in time to save April 15 from falling off the 2022 baseball calendar.
Almost 50 years on from his death, Jackie Robinson is still bringing people together. His name means as much to baseball as the game itself.