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Hairston, honoring Jackie, thinks family

On Robinson's day, Hairston recalls family

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SEATTLE -- Sam Hairston had only five at-bats for the Chicago White Sox in the summer of 1951.

He made his Major League debut on July 21 and played in his last game on Aug. 26. He was 2-for-5 during his stay and that was it for the first African-American player in Chicago White Sox history.

His Negro League accomplishments were much more substantial and the record shows that Hairston was the last in the Negro Leagues to win the Triple Crown when he hit .424 with 17 home runs and 71 RBIs for Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League in 1950.

Hairston passed away in 1997 but his great baseball legacy lives on and his grandson, Jerry Hairston Jr., was among those who honored the memory of great African-Americans of the past by wearing No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson on Sunday against the Seattle Mariners.

"Obviously it's a great honor to wear it today," Hairston said. "It's a great day to remember what Jackie did for us and for players of color, and it's great to see some Latin players wear it, too.

"My grandfather and I were very close. We used to talk two or three times a week and this day means more when you sit and think what players went through back then when they didn't have the opportunities we did."

Introduced in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created to honor the enduring impact of Jackie Robinson and his legacy as the first African-American player to break the Major League color barrier. Robinson played his first Major League game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1997, Robinson's uniform number 42 was retired throughout the Major Leagues.

Robinson's memory lives on today in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by Rachel Robinson in 1973 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources, as well as Breaking Barriers, which utilizes baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history while addressing critical issues of character development such as conflict resolution and self-esteem.

Players were given the option of wearing No. 42 on Sunday as a one-day tribute to Robinson. Rangers manager Ron Washington wore No. 42 as did his first-base coach Gary Pettis, Hairston and center fielder Kenny Lofton.

"For me it means a guy who went through extreme lengths back in the 1940s to play the game of baseball and I don't know how he did it," Lofton said. "I know how we are as people. When somebody fires words at you, you want to fire back. He didn't. That's tough. He put a whole culture of African-Americans on his back and played a sport he wanted to play no matter what it took.

"It was big. You have to understand it was still a divided system. He still had to do everything separate from his team in society and he had to deal with it every day."

Sam Hairston played against Robinson in the Negro Leagues, and then was a teammate of Willie Mays with the Birmingham Black Barons and then with Hank Aaron after he was traded to the Clowns.

"My grandfather was the one who picked up Hank Aaron at the train station," said Hairston, who grew up hearing stories of the Negro Leagues and Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Satchel Paige.

"My grandfather was catching in an all-star game against Major Leaguers and Satchel Paige was pitching. Ted Williams was up at the plate and he turned to my father and said, 'That's the best pitcher I've ever seen.'

"Ted Williams was one of the nicest guys. He really treated black players well and was pushing for them to get in the Hall of Fame."

Hairston's grandfather stayed in the game right to the end. He had two sons -- John and Jerry Sr. -- play Major League baseball and so do his two grandsons: Jerry Jr. and Scott. Jerry Jr. was a junior at Southern Illinois University in 1997 when he was taken in the 11th round by the Baltimore Orioles.

His grandfather, who was coaching for the Birmingham Barons in the White Sox farm system, had hit enough fungoes to his grandson to know that he was ready to play professional baseball.

"He convinced me to sign," Hairston said. "He predicted I would be in the big leagues in two or three years. I was up there the next year."

That was 10 years ago. Hairston is still in the prime of his career and his brother is a starting outfielder for the Diamondbacks. But they have never won the Triple Crown like their grandfather.

"He was the best Hairston," Jerry Jr. said on a day to remember Jackie Robinson and all the great Negro League players from long ago.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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