Of all the Jackie Robinson Day observations across the length and breadth of Major League Baseball, it is the Dodgers' celebration that is closest to the heart and the heart of the matter. Sixty-six years ago Monday, Robinson first appeared in the uniform of the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking Major League Baseball's racial barrier. In doing so, he irrevocably changed -- not to mention improved -- American society. The Dodgers' pregame celebration of Jackie Robinson's legacy included an appearance by Sharon Robinson, his daughter, and Rachel, his widow. Everyone in the program was received warmly by the crowd. Don Newcombe, a teammate and roommate of Jackie's who's now a special advisor to the Dodgers chairman, also received a very enthusiastic welcome from the crowd.
But Mrs. Robinson understandably received the loudest and longest greeting from the sellout crowd of 52,136. The standing ovation these citizens gave Rachel Robinson was like a wave of warmth passing through the ballpark.
It did not hurt that she was accompanied onto the field by Magic Johnson, the former Los Angeles Lakers great who's currently a partner in the ownership of the Dodgers. Johnson is a fabulously popular figure for reasons beyond his athletic success. But here, he was a high-profile extra. Rachel Robinson was the star.
Mrs. Robinson has always conducted herself with dignity and grace. She knew, more than anyone else could know, what she and her husband had to endure, the hatred and the bigotry they faced. But the Robinsons endured, Jackie Robinson succeeded on all baseball levels and the game and American society all became better for his presence in the Major Leagues.
So it was Rachel Robinson -- understandably, justifiably -- who was the recipient of the most affection from this baseball audience. She is 90 now, but she appears considerably younger. She did not appear to require Magic's assistance in taking her position on the third-base line, although certainly his company is always welcome. She is, in any event, the living record of the triumph of a few people over the forces of oppression aligned against them. The Dodger Stadium crowd might have applauded her for much of the rest of the evening and enjoyed every moment, but there was a baseball game to be played.
We're in something of a Jackie Robinson revival now. Any time is a good time for one of those. The film "42" is a focal point, and the fact that it was the leading box-office attraction this past weekend was greatly encouraging.
The influence of Jackie Robinson does not fade over time. In this setting, the direct baseball beneficiaries understand better than anyone else. Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, who arranged a screening of "42" for more than 200 youngsters, put it succinctly on Monday:
"If it wasn't for Jackie Robinson, I wouldn't be here, playing the game that I love, living the dream."
It is a daily treat, Kemp said, to put on the Dodgers uniform Robinson wore. The difference between Brooklyn and Los Angeles, in this case, becomes negligible.
And the bonus comes each Jackie Robinson Day, Kemp said, with each player on every team wearing Robinson's No. 42. In 1997, under the direction of Commissioner Bud Selig, the No. 42 was retired across all of Major League Baseball in an unprecedented tribute.
"I get to put on the same Dodgers uniform that Jackie put on," Kemp said. "Everybody needs to realize how great Jackie was, as a person and as a player."
The Dodgers and the San Diego Padres played baseball after the Robinson tribute. It was just baseball, and that was news, too. When these clubs met on Thursday, they also a took part in a fracas. The Padres' Carlos Quentin charged the mound after being hit with a pitch by newly signed Los Angeles right-hander Zack Greinke. In the subsequent collision, Greinke suffered a broken collarbone.
Joe Torre, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, called both managers before Monday's game, suggesting that further confrontations would be completely out of order, particularly given the nature of Jackie Robinson Day.
This was a message worth sending, but it wasn't as if there was any disagreement on the other end. The ball was in the Dodgers' court as far as retaliation, but they weren't going to mar Jackie Robinson Day due simply to a left-over feud with the Padres.
Both managers -- Bud Black of the Padres and Don Mattingly of the Dodgers -- said that this was a game to be won, not a vehicle for further conflict. In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, there was not a hint of violence or recrimination. The Padres won, 6-3.
In a video tribute to Robinson, iconic Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, narrating the piece, referred to Robinson as "more than a baseball legend -- an American legend."
That is well beyond dispute. From the crowd reaction at Dodger Stadium on Monday night, the respect, the affection, the understanding of the magnitude of Jackie Robinson's contributions extend, as they should, to his widow, Rachel.