Griffey first in line to wear No. 42
Reds outfielder embraces legacy of Jackie Robinson
CHICAGO -- A row of six different No. 42 jerseys hung in Ken Griffey Jr.'s locker on Sunday, each covered by a plastic bag.To honor Jackie Robinson on the 60th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues, Griffey was to wear each one at some point in the game against the Cubs. He had plans for some of them after that. "The first one will go to Rachel," said Griffey, referring to Robinson's widow, who Griffey has gotten to meet a couple of times. Griffey last wore No. 42 on April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson's historical moment, while he played for the Seattle Mariners. One of his Reds No. 42 jerseys will be put next to it. The rest will likely be auctioned off for charity, one of them via MLB.com. Robinson, a member of the Hall of Fame, wore No. 42 when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-56. In 1997, Selig announced that Robinson's No. 42 would be retired throughout baseball. The genesis of un-retiring the number on Jackie Robinson Day came from Griffey, who called baseball Commissioner Bud Selig for permission to wear it. Immediately embracing the gesture, Selig encouraged other clubs to have a player wear No. 42. Teams ran with the idea and outfitted multiple players, and in some cases, the entire roster, with the number. In ceremonies before Sunday's game, Griffey stood behind home plate with six members of the Cubs who donned the No. 42. None of the jerseys carried the players' last names. Some players, including the Twins' Torii Hunter and Indians' C.C. Sabathia, were critical this past week that maybe too many 42s were being worn and feared it might water down the tribute. Griffey, who usually wears No. 3, didn't see it that way. "We'll see at the end of the day, but I don't think so," Griffey said. "It's going to be a great experience for everybody. I think a lot of people wouldn't be in this locker room if it wasn't for what he did. I think it's going to be fine. I'm not worried about it. I think people will embrace it." Introduced in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created to honor the enduring impact of Jackie Robinson and his legacy as the first African American player to break the color barrier in the Major Leagues. Robinson played his first Major League game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Robinson's memory lives on today in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by Rachel Robinson in 1973 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources. He is also the inspiration for Breaking Barriers, which utilizes baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history while addressing critical issues of character development such as conflict resolution and self-esteem."I think it's important for baseball to take the lead on [celebrating Robinson], because Jackie Robinson is one of our own," Reds manager Jerry Narron said. "I think it's a great reminder to our entire country." Narron also has a unique perspective on the day. His uncle, Sam, played for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and '40s when Branch Rickey ran the club. As a Dodgers executive, Rickey later signed Robinson to a Minor League contract on Aug. 28, 1945. After he left St. Louis, Sam Narron worked for Rickey in the Dodgers and Pirates organizations. Jerry Narron grew up in North Carolina and heard plenty about Rickey. "Mr. Rickey was a solid person, a man of character," Narron said. "Our entire country owes Branch Rickey a great deal of gratitude. I believe he's often overlooked. It took somebody willing to give Jackie Robinson a chance. At that time, there was wasn't a whole lot of people willing to do it." Of course, others eventually followed Robinson out of the Negro Leagues and into the Majors as baseball integrated. Many of today's players aren't aware of the racism and other issues black players endured in the early years. Griffey had the advantage of being connected with former Reds through his father, Ken Griffey Sr. "I grew up a little differently," Griffey said. "I also had Joe Black, Brooks Lawrence, Chuck Harmon Sr. -- all those guys were at my house and just told me what it was like to play in the '40s and '50s and '50s and '60s, the barnstorming and all that." With only eight percent of Major Leaguers being African American, there is concern that Robinson's legacy could be diminished by time and a lack of role models. Efforts have been made to bring youth baseball to inner city children but it's often an uphill battle. "The commercials are not geared for kids having fun in baseball," Griffey said. "Football and basketball, they do it. Even at my house, you see someone dunk, stick their tongue out, run down the court and do a shimmy. You see a little Superman fly after he dunks. You see a guy in the end zone give a little quick dance. "[In] baseball, [it's] All-Star Game. Get your tickets. That's all it is. We just have to somehow do a better job of reaching out to everybody. It's not just black kids we're losing. We're losing everybody. Nobody wants to play baseball. Growing up, [baseball] was it. We played baseball until it snowed. When spring started, it was back to baseball, even if we played other sports. Saturday after a football game, if it was still warm out, we went out and played baseball."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.