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You would be forgiven if you thought the first Jackie Robinson Day was held on April 15, 2004, when Major League Baseball formally established the practice of honoring Jackie at ballparks across the country. Turns out, tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson inaugurated the celebration almost 77 years ago.

On September 23, 1947, at the end of Jackie Robinson’s debut season, Bill Robinson led the Ebbets Field faithful in an on-field celebration of baseball’s first Black superstar. Using donations solicited through the New York Amsterdam News, a local Black newspaper, Bojangles presented Jackie a new car, a television set, a gold watch, and even a fur coat for Rachel. For fans celebrating in the stands, in Brooklyn, and Harlem, the first Jackie Robinson Day was a way for New York’s Black communities to show their support for Robinson and the desegregation of Major League Baseball.

Jackie and Rachel Robinson are honored on the field in a pre-game ceremony on September 23, 1947. Jackie Robinson Museum Collection

Fifty years later, National League president Leonard S. Coleman, Jr. had the idea to permanently retire Robinson’s number from baseball, and on April 15, 1997, Major League Baseball honored the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Acting Commissioner Bud Selig, President Bill Clinton, and Rachel Robinson strode onto the field at Shea Stadium in the middle of the fifth inning of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets. In an unprecedented move, the Commissioner announced that Jackie Robinson’s number 42 would be retired throughout the game of baseball.

 

Former National League president Leonard S. Coleman, Jr. reflects on the retirement of Jackie’s No. 42. Jackie Robinson Museum Collection

Robinson’s number now appears at every stadium alongside each team’s retired numbers. Coleman and many players around the majors wanted to find a way to continue to honor Robinson every year. In 2004, baseball made the Robinson celebration permanent by establishing Jackie Robinson Day on April 15. It was not until 2007 that players themselves began to push for many of the traditions we see today. It began with Ken Griffey Jr., who called Rachel Robinson and Commissioner Selig to ask if the number 42 could be temporarily reinstated so he could wear it that day to celebrate Robinson’s achievements. Soon after, other players made the request as well. Over 100 players, including four entire teams, took the field wearing number 42. A year later in 2008, the number of players increased to over 300.

The Chicago Cubs’ Derrek Lee (left) stands beside Ken Griffey Jr. (right) of the Cincinnati Reds on Jackie Robinson Day, 2007. AP Images

 

By 2009, the tradition of all players, managers, coaches, and umpires wearing Robinson’s 42 for Jackie Robinson Day became firmly established. As players line up on the foul lines at the beginning of each game at ballparks around the country, it is impossible not to notice the significance of Jackie Robinson and his impact on the game.

Ballplayers (and the United States as a whole) have come a long way since the eighties and nineties when many players had little idea of who Jackie Robinson was and what he accomplished. When Robinson was honored in 1997, African American players, both current and former, took it upon themselves to talk to the media, fans, and other players about the importance of Jackie Robinson. On Jackie Robinson Day, fans continue to show up to recognize Robinson’s importance to the fight for racial equality in the United States, just as the Flatbush Faithful filled Ebbets Field all those years ago.

The New York Mets celebrate a walk-off home run to win the game during the second game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 28, 2020. The day honoring Jackie Robinson, traditionally held on April 15, was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah Stier, Getty Images 

 

As we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day this year, it is important to remember that Robinson is being honored not merely because he was the first Black major leaguer in the modern era, but because he was a lifelong fighter for civil rights and economic justice. His life and work transcend baseball, both in our time and in his.

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