A Better Way to Honor Jackie Robinson

In some respects, any idea to make changes on how to properly commemorate Jackie Robinson is too late as April 15th has already passed. However, it’s also the point of MLB’s celebration of Jackie Robinson. It’s supposed to make you think and reflect on not just on his contributions, but also on how to make the world better. 

Upon reflection, I think MLB has the wrong idea in having every single MLB player wear the number 42. 

Yes, baseball has its heart in the right place. It is taking the opportunity to have every single one of its players honor Robinson, who in many ways, is the most important player in baseball history. However, this honor has had some unfortunate and unintended side effects. 

First, there’s all the jokes. Undoubtedly, a fan or a broadcaster is going to make an oft repeated joke about everyone wearing the same number. They’ll also complain everyone is wearing the same number making it hard to identify which player is which. When your good intentions lead to jokes and complaints, it’s time to reassess the situation. 

Uponreassessment, we also have to consider the honoring of Jackie Robinson has had the unfortunate and unintended consequence of overlooking other players contributions. There were players who were great like Cool Papa Bell who never got the chance to play in the majors. There were others like Satchel Paige whose chance came well past their primes. Then there were the other players like Larry Doby who faced the same obstacles Robinson did in other leagues and other cities. As Dan Szymborski noted, there needs to be room to honor other players:

That’s the unfortunate consequence of every player wearing 42. There were other individuals and players who had fought the same fight.  That’s what Jackie Robinson and his legacy was. He was the one that got to pave the way. He made it possible for others. It wasn’t just that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, it was that one day players of all races and creeds could play together. Jackie Robinson was a key figure in a movement, but he wasn’t the only one. With that said, Jackie Robinson Day should be a moment not only to honor Jackie Robinson, but also every player that was part of this movement. 

To that end, each and every single player should be able to take the field wearing the number of a player that was important to them. More importantly, they should select players that helped advance equality. 

There should always be a player that wears 42. In fact, if the entire team wants to wear 42 as a team decision, it has that much more power. It would also be great to have some players wear 5, 8, or 23, which were some of the numbers Robinson wore while he was a player with the Kansas City Monarchs. Someone can wear his number 10, which he wore when he first broke the color barrier when he played for the Montreal Royals, who was the Dodgers AAA affiliate at the time. 

Aside from Robinson, there are other numbers that could be worn. As a nod to Szymborski’s recommendation, players could wear the uniform number of the player who broke the color barrier for the franchise for which they play. A player could wear the number 1 in honor of Pee Wee Reese, who put his arm around Robinson during a game (even if Ken Burns’ documentary Jackie Robinson debunked). There’s the number 14 Larry Doby wore when he broke the color barrier in the American League in 1947, the same year as Jackie Robinson.  Someone could wear the number 20, not only in honor of Josh Gibson, but also in honor of those talented enough to play but barred from playing. Speaking of the number 20, a player could wear it to honor Frank Robinson, the first black manager in baseball history. As we know seeing a black MLB manager was a cause Robinson championed as well. 

Babe Ruth and his number 3 would be appropriate as The Babe was an early advocate of integration and would play Negro League teams on his barnstorming tours.  A player could wear Ted William‘s number 9 to honor a man who called for more Negro League players to be elected to the Hall of Fame and twice put his career on hold to serve his country. 

The choices could extend outside the Negro Leagues as well. There’s Roberto Clemente‘s and his number 21.  Clemente is revered in Puerto Rico, and in the United States, not only for his Hall of Fame talent, but also his charitable work. There’s Tony Perez‘s 24, which could be worn to honor not only the first Cuban elected to the Hall of Fame, the hardships the players endure coming to the United States to play baseball, and the fight for civil rights the Cuban people have back at home. There’s also Hideo Nomo‘s 16 to show that despite prejudice, Japanese players could not only play in the major leagues, but they could be an All Star. A player could wear Jim Abbott‘s 25 to show there is no obstacle you can’t overcome. There may be some player who wears no number on his back to honor the countless players who never had an opportunity to wear a number on the back of a major league jersey. 

There really no wrong option unless you are choosing to honor Cap Anson

After players have made their selections, they can say a few words about what both Jackie Robinson and the player they selected means to them. These clips can run on the scoreboards, on local broadcasts, and on team and MLB social media accounts. The jerseys can then be sold after the game to help support the RBI Program and/or other charities. 

By doing this, we keep not only honor Jackie Robinson, but also all the players who fought injustice. That is the best possible way to honor Jackie Robinson. 

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