NEW YORK – It was 75 years ago to the day when the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jack Roosevelt Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It was 25 years ago when former MLB commissioner Bud Selig universally retired Robinson’s 42 throughout the entire league.
From that day forward, every April 15 has been dedicated to the legacy, the leadership and the memory of Robinson. Since 2009, every player on the field that day wears 42 in unity.
It’s a rare moment when the number on the back of the jersey is more important than the team name on the front.
That was the case Friday, and the Arizona Diamondbacks were in New York to experience it. In their game against the Mets, they honored one of the most important figures in sports history, with a Dodger-blue 42 on their backs along with the rest of the league.
“It’s an honor,” first baseman Christian Walker said.
“Just to be able to play the same game and reap the benefits for the great things he’s done, all of the sacrifices he made. Just truly honored,” he added.
During batting practice, just before the festivities, Diamondbacks players seemed to have a little extra pep in their step.
“The day is awesome, it’s easy to celebrate,” Walker said. “But, it’s not just about today. It’s about being able to go out every day. To be a part of a team with my teammates, it’s a brotherhood. It’s very very exciting.”
The same can apply to the Mets and their fans in attendance for their home opener, which also featured the unveiling of their long-awaited Tom Seaver statue in the morning. The day ended with a 10-3 Mets victory.
Citi Field has 42,000 seats, and it was hard to find an empty one. The first 25,000 fans that entered the stadium secured a free Brooklyn Dodgers T-shirt with “Robinson” and “42” on the back.
In an ideal New York afternoon, Sonya Pankey, Jackie and Rachel Robinson’s first granddaughter, was there to see how much her grandfather means to not only baseball but the world as a whole.
“It’s slightly surreal for me, quite honestly,” Pankey said after the celebration, slightly choking up.
Numerous high-power figures sought Pankey out to say thank you, to share a moment or to simply shake her hand.
The first woman and only third African American to be named New York Police Department commissioner, Keechant Sewell, wore a big smile when she went to greet Sonya for the first time.
Steve and Alex Cohen, the owning family of the Mets, embraced Pankey along with other public figures and legends of baseball.
“There’s an immense amount of pride for our family, just knowing that his legacy is going to live on through our family and the next generations to come,” she said.
His legacy was honored in multiple ways, including video tributes on the big screen, including one which featured Jackie’s son David.
“It’s really been a warm and gracious welcome of my grandfather and his accomplishments,” Pankey said. “We feel like we’re a part of the Met family and the extended baseball family.”
One specific tribute to Robinson was particularly poignant. Along with the announcement of the starting lineup, each of the nine Mets players was accompanied by a young scholar from the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Additionally, all of the scholars were wearing jerseys with one of the nine core values Robinson tried to live by, while encouraging others to do the same: excellence, citizenship, commitment, teamwork, determination, justice, persistence, courage and integrity.
Pankey believes the legacy of her grandfather is in good hands with the Jackie Robinson Museum opening in New York City in July. The museum is set to be over 19,000 square feet and will feature approximately 4,500 historical artifacts, 40,000 images and 450 hours of video footage.
“We hope that it will live beyond us,” Pankey said.