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No. 42 was one of chance

No. 42 was one of chance

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LOS ANGELES -- The most famous number in Major League Baseball history was established because of pure luck, the team historian for the Los Angeles Dodgers said on Friday.

In 1947, Jackie Robinson was simply issued No. 42 without any input as he prepared to break into the Major Leagues on April 15 of that season, thus becoming the first African American player in 58 years to play in the big leagues.

"It's not like any rookie back in 1947 was going to go to the club and request a number," said Mark Langill, the longtime keeper of the team's history dating back to its birth in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Baseball is celebrating the 60th anniversary of that event at 15 game sites on Sunday with the focal point at Dodger Stadium, beginning with an 8 p.m. ET ceremony.

Robinson retired in 1956 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. But it wasn't until 10 years later that tensions between Robinson and Walter O'Malley, the team's owner during that era, thawed enough for Robinson to return to the ballpark on the day the Dodgers retired his number.

The Dodgers, who have placed 10 numbers into mothballs, retire only the digits of their former players inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, save for Jim Gilliam, who had been a player and coach with the organization for 26 years upon his untimely death at 49 just prior to the 1978 World Series.

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues, Commissioner Bud Selig retired No. 42 throughout baseball, grandfathering in only the players then wearing the number. Mariano Rivera, who joined the Yankees in 1995, is the only active player still wearing Robinson's number.

On Sunday, Selig has "unretired" the number for a day. Many players, and a few full teams, including the Dodgers, will wear No. 42 in honor of Robinson.

But there's no secret story behind Robinson possessing that number. As a case in point, Robinson wore No. 10 as a member of the Montreal Royals in 1946, his only season playing in the Dodgers' Minor League organization.

"He just wore the number John Griffin gave him," said Langill, referring to the clubhouse attendant affectionately called "The Senator."

Robinson isn't the only player who's had his No. 42 retired in team sports, but there has been only one other in Major League Baseball history. The Cardinals retired Bruce Sutter's No. 42 last year after the right-handed reliever was elected to the Hall of Fame.

In the National Football League, quarterbacks Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears and Charlie Conerly of the New York Giants and defensive back Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers all had their No. 42s retired.

In the NBA, Nate Thurmond of the San Francisco Warriors, Connie Hawkins of the Phoenix Suns and James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers are retired 42s.

And finally, Pat Tillman, a linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State, who left football to join the U.S. Army and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, had his No. 42 retired by the university.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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