Today is Jackie Robinson Day around Major League Baseball. Unfortunately we aren’t celebrating it in the way that we usually do. There’s no baseball being played. No one is donning the #42 on their backs in honor of Robinson on the field today. On this day, April 15th, back in 1947, it was Jackie Robinson who broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he went 0-3 with a sacrifice hit and a run scored in a win over the Boston Braves in Brooklyn.
Every year players wear the #42 jersey on April 15th to celebrate what Jackie Robinson did and what he represents, not only for the game of baseball, but for the players who came after him that previously never would have gotten the opportunity. But it wasn’t always that way. In 1997 it was announced that the #42 would be retired across baseball, and only players who wore the number at the time would be allowed to continue wearing it. Mariano Rivera would be the final player to regularly wear the number.
Back in 2007, it was then Cincinnati Red outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. who had the idea to wear the #42 on Jackie Robinson Day. He reached out to Rachel Robinson, the wife of Jackie, and to then commissioner Bud Selig about the idea of wearing the number on that day only in honor of Robinson. Selig liked the idea that eventually it became a thing that all of the teams did each year.
Hopping into our time machine that allows us to revisit past baseball games, we’ve dialed up our Jackie Robinson flashback to the first time he visited Cincinnati to take on the Reds. Brooklyn was in town for a 2-game series in May of 1947. Robinson was in the lineup for both games, hitting second and playing first base. Cincinnati would win both games – take that Dodgers – but Robinson reached base four times in the series. In the first game he would go 1-4 with a walk, run scored, and he had an RBI. The next day he would go 2-4 in a shutout 2-0 loss that featured a complete game by Ewell Blackwell in front of 6,688 people.
Robinson would go on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award that season, hitting an impressive .297/.383/.427 in 701 plate appearances across 151 total games. He would also steal 29 bases along the way. During his first season in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson played 11 games at Crosley Field against the Reds, and he found plenty of success. He would strike out just one time, and draw four walks while hitting .311 – going 14-45 with 10 runs scored.
But while the Dodgers rookie may have had success on the field in Cincinnati, as you likely guessed, many of the fans in the crowd weren’t exactly kind in how they handled what they were seeing. It was during that first trip to Cincinnati and Crosley Field that was quite impactful on the Dodgers, Robinson, and eventually was seen as a pivotal moment in what was just beginning around the county. Or so that’s how the story goes. From ESPN.com, Brian Cronin looked into things about the story of Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, and that fateful day in Cincinnati.
As the story goes, Cincinnati fans were giving Robinson a particularly tough time as the Dodgers took the field in the bottom of the first. In a show of support, Reese temporarily left his position at shortstop and traveled over to Robinson at first base and put his arm around the rookie, silencing the crowd, which was awed by the act of racial empathy by Reese, a popular All-Star from nearby Kentucky.
Maybe you’ve heard the story. Maybe you haven’t. But that’s the story that’s been around for a very long time. As Cronin discusses, there’s evidence that maybe the event didn’t even take place in Cincinnati or in 1947. There’s today’s sort-of-maybe history lesson.