The Tigers helped Major League Baseball celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on Tuesday night at Comerica Park. It has been 61 years since Robinson became the first African-American Major Leaguer as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Tigers players like Curtis Granderson want to ensure his importance withstands the test of time.
"So much other information is coming in, with current events and people not studying history, that it can be real easy to [forget]," Granderson said. Jackie Robinson Day "is a great way to remind people and teach some people that don't know about it."
An on-field presentation preceded Tuesday night's game against the Minnesota Twins, with the winners of the 2008 Jackie Robinson Art, Essay and Poetry Contest receiving framed certificates from Granderson.
On the scoreboard in left field, a three-minute video played, featuring black-and-white shots of Robinson hitting and stealing bases, comments from admirers Hank Aaron, Tommy Lasorda, Tigers pitcher Dontrelle Willis and White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye, and video of players from across the Majors wearing Robinson's No. 42 during last years Jackie Robinson Day festivities. The crowd of 30,901 gave the presentation a large ovation.
Introduced in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created to honor the Hall of Famer's impact on baseball, as well as greater American society.
Robinson's memory lives on today in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by Rachel Robinson, his widow, in 1973 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources. Additionally, the Breaking Barriers program utilizes baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history in addition to addressing critical issues of character development, such as conflict resolution and self-esteem.
Robinson played his first big league game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947. He died of heart problems in 1972.
In Robinson's honor, players can only wear No. 42 on April 15. Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig retired the number throughout baseball in 1997 in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut.
Granderson, Willis, Gary Sheffield, Marcus Thames, Ivan Rodriguez, Jacque Jones and hitting coach Lloyd McClendon donned No. 42 on Tuesday night.
The idea of unretiring Robinson's number for one day belongs to Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who petitioned for the opportunity last year. Selig approved the idea and deemed all players, managers and coaches eligible to wear the number on Jackie Robinson Day.
According to Tigers players, Jackie Robinson Day is about a lot more than wearing a number; It's about why they're wearing the number.
To prepare for the day, Thames had been busy reading a Robinson biography. He knew the basic story about Robinson breaking the color barrier, but he was stunned to read about all the hatred Robinson had to endure in doing so, and felt compelled to honor Robinson's courage.
"He went through a lot of stuff that I don't think I could have been able to put up with," Thames said. "He couldn't go in a restaurant to eat, had to go in the back door to eat -- stuff like that.
"He went through a lot for us, and it's an honor to wear his number."
Granderson, who has long pushed to increase participation in baseball among African-Americans, acknowledges those sacrifices, too, and feels Robinson's contributions have affected more than just black Americans.
He said Robinson opened the door for players of all races to play in the Majors, and that is why he idolizes the pioneer.
"It was important not only for baseball, but for people in general, for minority people all over the world, and our team is definitely a living example of that," Granderson said. "We got guys from the Dominican, guys from Puerto Rico, guys from Columbia, all over the United States. To get a chance to represent what he set the tone for [in] the United States and all over the world is definitely an honor and a privilege."
Big leaguers from multiple countries wore No. 42, not just black players. For the Tigers, that distinction went to Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican native.
Rodriguez was a late addition to those wearing Robinson's number last year, but he wanted celebrate the man who made the Majors a possible destination for players around the globe. This year was no different.
"Why not?" Rodriguez said. "He has done great things, great things for the game."
Scott McNeish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.