From Jackie to Junior

How Ken Griffey Jr. invented Jackie Robinson Day

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game #32

This is the latest in an occasional series of musings and meditations inspired by Joe Posnanski’s book “The Baseball 100,” focusing on players in the 2001 Fleer Greats of the Game set.

2001 Fleer Greats of the Game

#32 Jackie Robinson

2B, Brooklyn Dodgers

hat could I possibly write about Jackie Robinson that hasn’t already been written? There are countless books, not to mention movies, YouTube highlights and documentaries, and annual promotion from Major League Baseball in the form of Jackie Robinson Day each April 15th.

On that date every MLB player, coach, and manager wears number 42 in tribute to Robinson, breaker of the baseball color barrier. What many might not know — and I find fascinating — is that Jackie Robinson day was initiated by another Black Hall-of-Famer: Ken Griffey Jr.

Griffey actually wore Robinson’s number twice before the idea caught on. The first time was April 15, 1997 — the day baseball Commissioner Bud Selig officially retired Robinson’s uniform number during a mid-game ceremony at the nationally televised Dodgers-Mets game.

Griffey asked that his usual jersey number — 24 — be flip-flopped for the Mariners’ game that day. The moment is captured in this 1998 Upper Deck Collector’s Choice card, though it’s criminal that no explanation for the switched number is given on the back.

1998 Upper Deck Collector’s Choice #240

Ten years later, Griffey, then with the Cincinnati Reds, wanted to wear number 42 again to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s MLB debut. After securing permission from Robinson’s widow, Selig gave Griffey the green light. A handful of other Major Leaguers followed suit. For the next two seasons, wearing 42 on Jackie Robinson Day was optional.

ut in 2009, Selig proclaimed it official: all uniformed MLB personnel would henceforth wear number 42 on April 15 to honor Jackie Robinson. The tradition continues.

Maybe, eventually, it was inevitable that wearing Robinson’s number league-wide on Jackie Robinson Day would come to pass. The man was a cultural icon. But then again, maybe not. For all his Hall-of-Fame accomplishments as a player, this act might become Griffey’s crowning achievement. He quietly instituted a lasting memorial to a racial pioneer, without politics, without rancor, without dissent.

So next April 15, when everyone is wearing 42, flip the digits in your mind for a moment and honor The Kid who made this a reality. And when you see Griffey’s ’98 Collector’s Choice card, you’ll have quite the story to tell your friends.

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