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Wearing #42: A Simple Honor For an Incredible Man

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Today will show us a fine example of what distinguishes baseball from the other major sports in this country. Baseball has such a great sense of its history, allowing it to influence and define the game to this day. That appreciation often yields some special moments, one of which we'll see today. More than 150 players throughout the sport will take the field wearing Jackie Robinson's number 42 (which had been retired by Major League Baseball ten years ago), in tribute to the 60th anniversary of him breaking the sport's racial barriers when he entered the game at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Cincinnati's Ken Griffey, Jr. first proposed the idea to Commissioner Bud Selig, who liked the concept so much that he thought any player and every team should be allowed to do the same thing, if they so choosed. Many others soon decided to join the salute.

For the Detroit Tigers, Gary Sheffield, Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames, Pudge Rodriguez, Lloyd McClendon, and Curtis Granderson will wear Robinson's uniform number today. Six teams - the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers, and of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers - will have everyone in uniform sport the number 42. (Each player will receive two jerseys, one of which they can keep. The others will be auctioned off to benefit the Jackie Robinson Foundation.)

Seventeen years ago, I had the opportunity to write a term paper on the Negro Leagues for my high school history class. At the time, I just thought it was a cool way to get through such an assignment and was thrilled when my teacher approved my topic of choice. (Thank you, Mr. Whitted.) While my friends and classmates were slogging through research on JFK's assassination, the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, the Vietnam War, or Roe vs. Wade (all worthy topics, of course), I got to write about baseball.

For a 17-year-old kid, it was astounding to read about the abuse he endured from spectators, other players, and even his own teammates. And the idea that black athletes weren't allowed to play baseball was a completely foreign concept to me. I couldn't imagine a sport that wouldn't have included so many players I admired, such as Lou Whitaker, Kirby Puckett, Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, and Dwight Gooden. But a key part of the assignment was to focus upon a pivotal event for your chosen subject. And in my paper, that meant writing about Jackie Robinson being the first black man to play in the major leagues.

Even now, soon to be 34, I still have difficulty comprehending Robinson's struggle to merely play a game that seems so easily accessible to anyone nowadays. How many times did he ask himself whether or not it was worth taking all those insults and attacks? How hard must it have been not to retaliate against his oppressors, as Branch Rickey demanded of him?

In anticipation of today's celebration, there's been quite a bit of chatter regarding a couple of different topics: 1) whether or not those wearing the number appreciate what the gesture really means, and 2) the decreasing number of African-American players in Major League Baseball.

The first point seems a little bit snobby to me. Maybe I'm being naive, but I find it hard to believe that some players are only wearing #42 to "be cool." But even if that's why they're doing it, on some level, those guys have to know why it would be cool, right? The second point is a big concern, and I'm glad to hear players like Sheffield, Dontrelle Willis, Torii Hunter, C.C. Sabathia, and Jimmy Rollins speak out on the matter. I can only hope they're sincere about wanting to do something about it, but I also wonder just how much they can truly do. That's a discussion I'd really like to have here, but such a complex subject probably deserves its own blog entry.

Today is meant for acknowledging one of baseball's pioneers. It's gratifying to see so many players show their appreciation for Jackie Robinson and what he's meant to the sport. And if even one person turns to someone next to them, whether it's at the ballpark or while watching on TV, and asks why so many guys are wearing #42, then it's most certainly a worthy gesture.