by Anthony Amobi, special to Nats News Network
On Friday, April 15th, the Washington Nationals and the 29 other teams in Major League Baseball celebrated the life of Jackie Robinson, the first African American player to play in the modern era.
Before and during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals showed vignettes from Robinson’s illustrious career and life. Also, the team honored the Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars Program, and children from the Benjamin Banneker Little League program met with Nationals players on the field during a pre-game ceremony.
Throughout the league, all players and team personnel on the field wore the number 42 to celebrate the 64th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut. Since 2004, the sport has designated Apr. 15th of every year to honor him.
Major League Baseball officially retired the number 42 in 1997. However, one player in the game today – New York Yankee reliever Mariano Rivera – can wear the number because he had it for two years before it was retired by the league.
Jackie Robinson, who debuted in the major leagues for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, broke the sport’s color barrier. Before he played for the Dodgers, African-Americans were barred from joining the major leagues and their only avenue to play professional baseball was in the Negro Leagues.
Robinson was one of the most decorated players of his era as he helped the Dodgers become a perennial contender and win the World Series in 1955. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1947, Most Valuable Player in 1947 and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.
Robinson’s impact was not only felt on the field, but off of it as well. In addition to integrating the sport of baseball, he also played an integral role in the Civil Rights movement, inspiring people from all walks of life to fight injustice.
Nationals’ infielder and 14-year major league veteran Jerry Hairston reflected on what the number 42, April 15th of every year and Jackie Robinson means to him.
“I think every time we have Jackie Robinson Day and wear the number 42, we appreciate what he did for us," Hariston said.
Hairston, 34, is a third-generation major leaguer. His father, Jerry Sr., and grandfather Sam also played in the major leagues.
Early in his life Jerry learned what Robinson not only did for the sport, but the country.
“He not only he had an impact on people of color and America, but as Martin Luther King said best, he also sparked the Civil Rights movement. That allowed everyone to see a black man succeed on the baseball field and in life. That meant a lot.”
Hairston also brought up his grandfather – who played against Robinson in the Negro Leagues – and the overall impact that had on him.
“My grandfather played in the Negro Leagues, and in fact, he played against Jackie Robinson. He was the 11th player to sign in the majors. To not only hear those stories about the players – Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige – who came before Jackie and the way he paved the road for all of us is not something I take lightly.”
Hairston added, “Jackie represented all those players and an entire race in America. He did it himself in a dignified way. The number 42 represents that.”
Finally, although America has changed for the better with race relations since Robinson’s debut in 1947, Hairston believes the memory of his life cannot ever be forgotten even with Barack Obama – the first African American president of the United States of America – currently in office.
“We’ve come a long way since then. Is there still a ways to go? I believe so. Obviously, having President Barack Obama in office is an accomplishment, but it’s always good to have a reminder of how things once were and never forget it. Jackie paved the way for us, and we can never forget it.”