Players pay tribute to Robinson, feel his impact beyond special day
By Richard Justice
We set this Saturday aside to honor an American hero. We do this every baseball season, because Jackie Robinson is that important to baseball and to the country.
We do this by telling Robinson's story and remembering his words. Players wear his No. 42. Major League Baseball retired it in 1997, but it's brought back on this day as another way of keeping Robinson's memory alive. And this year's festivities will have an extra-special feel at Dodger Stadium, where this afternoon, the club is set to unveil a statue modeled after Robinson stealing home.
Dozens of players have their own way of honoring Robinson. For instance, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen swipes the bill of his cap during big moments. He picked that gesture up from the movie "42," when Robinson slid into third base, hopped up and tipped his hat in a gesture to his wife Rachel.
"I'm like, 'That's cool, I like that,'" McCutchen told MLB Network's Harold Reynolds. "For me, that's my tribute to Jackie and to my wife as well. Every time I tip my cap, it's more of a reminder."
McCutchen and other Major League players will tell their stories in "MLBN Presents: Jackie Robinson, 70 Years Later," which will air at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday.
"I think the first time I could pick up a bat when I was around 5, my dad taught me a little bit about Jackie Robinson," McCutchen said. "Who he was, what he represented.
"Why I'm able to go out there on the field and play has a lot to do with him. I encourage anybody who has never seen the movie '42,' it's an awesome movie. You get to kind of see a little bit of what we went through. Your eyes are opened a little more."
Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said "42" so inspired him that he took a group of the youth baseball players he sponsors in Baltimore to see the movie. What struck him was how their parents reacted.
"I had some of the parents afterward crying," Jones said. "They were like, 'I didn't know he went through all this stuff.' For me, it was important for them to understand this is why you're on the field. Don't worry about your color, worry about your talent.
"If you go out there and grind it out, you can do it. It shows that Jackie -- and countless guys behind him -- just needed that opportunity."
Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, is one of the most significant days in the history of the United States. When a black man joined a previously all-white sport, he forced Americans to see things in a way they'd never seen them before.
Later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would say Robinson helped jump-start the civil rights movement.
"What he did is something none of us take for granted," Pirates infielder Josh Harrison said. "He paved the way for a lot of people. … We just want to keep it going."
Robinson lived only 53 years, dying in 1972 of complications from diabetes, and he may not have fully grasped his impact. He was 43 when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, and he asked that his plaque list only his accomplishments on the field.
In 2008, the Hall of Fame -- with the family's permission -- rewrote the words on Robinson's plaque to reflect his larger impact on the country.
As a player, Robinson played fearlessly, especially on the bases. He led the National League in steals in two of his first three seasons, and most remarkably, stole home plate 19 times in the regular season and once in the World Series.
"He was a guy who did things people had never seen before," McCutchen said. "That's just out of this world. It shows you the type of flair he brought to the game. He changed it. He made the game something totally different.
"You look at the games [back] in the day. You saw the way the game was. Jackie Robinson when he came, they didn't know what was going on. You can do this? Yeah, you can do that. You've just got to be able to do it. I don't think many people could."
"It gives you that sense of pride," said Stroman, "that Jackie paved the way. That he was a pioneer. Visionary. Trailblazer. Like Adam said, he sacrificed a ton to allow us to be in the position we're in today. We're extremely thankful that he did what he did."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.