More than 200 Major Leaguers wore No. 42 on Sunday, honoring Jackie Robinson. Ken Griffey Jr., gets the credit for starting this trend, but this was a case of come one, come all. No tribute can be too large when it comes to Jackie Robinson.
Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball, said that Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier was "baseball's proudest and most important moment." That comment covers a world of history, but it is not an overstatement. Jackie Robinson's arrival was baseball's most powerful moment as a social institution.
The appearance of an African-American player in the big leagues in 1947 not only changed baseball, but helped to change American society. At that time, the U.S. Army was still segregated. The landmark decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education had not yet occurred. The comprehensive Voting Rights Act was fully 18 years away.
America at that time was, in essence, two societies. Jackie Robinson was not merely a great ballplayer. He was a message; a message that integration was not only just, but possible, here in one of this nation's most enduring institutions and thus, everywhere else as well.
Baseball was no better than the rest of society on this issue before 1947. And then, it was in the forefront of change. Jackie Robinson started baseball on the path from being a restrictive, whites-only activity to the global game we see before us today. The game evolved into a more inclusive, equitable game after Jackie Robinson appeared, not to mention a bigger and better game.
And his appearance on a Major League roster was a major part of the evolution of American society. This process still goes on and it may be painfully slow. But it was given a prominent push in the right direction by Jackie Robinson and baseball.
This Jackie Robinson Day fittingly culminated in ceremonies at Dodger Stadium before the game between the Dodgers and the Padres. The centerpiece was the presentation of the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award to Rachel Robinson. Frank Robinson, baseball's first African-American manager, and Henry Aaron, the holder of baseball's most esteemed record, threw out the first pitches. All of this was as it should have been, honoring the baseball history that Jackie Robinson had made possible.
The phrase "breaking the color barrier" was used frequently on this day, and at this distance it sounds easier than it actually was. The rest of us can only imagine the pressure on Jackie Robinson on that day 60 years ago. It was not simply the pressure to withstand racist taunts and a mountain of abuse, although that had to be a daily ordeal. It was also the pressure to succeed, because in his position, failure was simply not an option.
But he succeeded, nobly and on every level. He defeated every stereotype and became regarded as a remarkable individual; a fierce competitor, a highly intelligent man, a human being of immeasurable worth. He was a pioneer, in the largest sense of that term. The game owes a debt to him, too large to ever be fully repaid.
That is why the celebrations and the ceremonies in Jackie Robinson's honor will always be appropriate. But the thought of what he means to the game, should not require rites and rituals to be ever-present.
Jackie Robinson represents the best of what the game could be -- fair, inclusive, open, just. He is the single most important figure in the history of the game and he always will be. For those of us who love the game, remembering Jackie Robinson and what he meant to the game and the nation ought to be a daily occurrence, on the level of the National Anthem and the first pitch. Baseball, as we know it now, could never have happened without him.