The History of 42, Before 42 Made History

Many before and after Jackie Robinson wore No. 42, but no one else wore it better. (via Mr. Littlehand)

We’re close to a familiar anniversary on the baseball calendar. April 15, 1947, was the day Jackie Robinson debuted in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the infamous color barrier. This coming Monday, we will see every player on every major league team—okay, 20 of them: the other 10 won’t play until Tuesday—wearing Robinson’s 42 in his honor. It is a remarkable day in baseball—and American—culture, and only partly because it makes people feel good about a date usually associated with the IRS.

Robinson’s ties to his number, which he wore for his entire 10-year career and which Commissioner Bud Selig retired across baseball in 1997, are now part of his legend. Still, the number 42 wasn’t always uniquely his. It had a history before Robinson made history with it.

I looked into that history, into all of the ballplayers who wore 42 before Robinson officially took possession of it on April 15, 1947. Their ranks included some notable names and a lot of footnotes to baseball history. I learned things from both groups, some of them real surprises, and together they shone a light on an unappreciated facet of Robinson’s career, one more important to his place in history than it seems at first glance.

42 Times 36

Numbering players emerged fairly late in the development of the professional game. Cleveland experimented first with numbers on players’ sleeves in 1916 but gave it up quickly. A similar trial by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1922 died out even faster. It was Cleveland and the New York Yankees who made it stick in 1929, putting numbers on jersey backs, where they could be much larger and more visible. New York announced its upcoming experiment in January of that year, but a Yankees rainout meant Cleveland debuted the innovation first.

The idea’s time had come. By 1931, every team in the American League put numbers on their players’ backs. The National League reached full participation in 1933. The Pittsburgh Pirates had joined the crowd in 1932, and in doing so gave us the first No. 42 in the history of the majors: Larry French.

It was French’s fourth year in the majors, all with Pittsburgh, so it wasn’t a case of a spring training invitee making good and taking his high number into the bigs. French was established in the Pirates’ pitching rotation, with 35 and 33 starts the previous two seasons. He would start 33 again in 1932 while making 14 relief appearances, leading the National League in total games pitched. There were four instances that year when French would start a game, come in for relief two or three days later, then make his next start a standard four days after his last one, taking his rotation turn as if nothing had intervened.

He spent three years as No. 42 with the Pirates but was traded to the Cubs when Pittsburgh suffered a down year after two second-place finishes. French showed no sentimentality toward his old number. He would be 14 at Wrigley, then 20 when he fetched up in Brooklyn in 1941.

French was a very good—if somewhat snake-bitten—hurler, never reaching the 20-win plateau despite three campaigns with 18. He would accumulate 45.2 bWAR—43.7 fWAR—in a career that spanned 14 seasons and ended only when he enlisted in the Navy during World War II. (He retired as Captain French in 1969.) He might have been the best player to wear 42 before Jackie, though you will see there are other contenders; he certainly accumulated the most value wearing a 42 of anybody before Robinson.

That last fact derives largely from French having the longest tenure of anyone playing with the number 42 before Robinson, a whole three years. Only four other players would wear 42 for more than one season before 1947. Those 42s who changed their numbers invariably did so downward, not upward. Remember these points.

French did have successors as pre-Robinson 42s with the Pirates. Pitcher Johnny Gee wore it during his three-start cup of coffee with the Bucs in 1939. When he returned in 1941, he switched to 24. (Gee was much more famous for being the tallest big-leaguer of his era, at 6-foot-9. It didn’t make him a good pitcher: his bWAR and fWAR add up to exactly zero.) Seven years later, Jim Hopper would pitch two games wearing 42—and wearing a lot more. With a 10.38 ERA and 7.00 FIP, his first two games were also his last.

For the second 42 in baseball, we switch leagues to the AL and meet Ed Cihocki of the Philadelphia A’s. Cihocki made his debut in 1932, the same year as French. On May 29, with 42 on his back, he emerged to bat for pitcher Lew Krausse in the seventh inning of a doubleheader opener in Fenway Park. He grounded out to second, returned to the bench, and thus ended his rookie year. When he returned in 1933 for his second season, the shortstop wore 24 instead. The more respectable number didn’t change his nature as a ballplayer, and he washed out of the majors that year.

Cihocki’s numerical successor on the A’s was Dick Fowler, who wore 42 in his rookie campaign in 1941. The Torontonian pitched in four games, going 1-2 with a deceptively good 3.38 ERA. He struggled through 1942 under two different numbers then was out of baseball for two years, presumably in the war effort. He would return in 1945 as No. 25, have four pretty good post-war seasons (even if he did lead the league in losses in one of them), then fade out as the 1950s rolled around. It was a decent 10-year career, even if Jackie did far more in his decade.

It is a peculiarity that, while it was quicker to embrace player numbers, the American League had far fewer 42s before Robinson than the National League. A total of 11 players wore the number in the junior circuit up to 1946 against 25 in the senior loop. There is no obvious explanation, except maybe AL teams hewed closer to the Yankees’ original policy of issuing numbers based on places in the batting order. (That’s why Babe Ruth was No. 3, Lou Gehrig was No. 4, and so on.) If you want to see a parallel with Robinson in the NL having a lot more 42s earlier on, you’re free to do so.

While every team in the National League had at least one 42 before Jackie, three AL teams did not. The Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Browns, and Washington Senators were those teams. The Browns and Senators debuted their first 42s in 1950, while Detroit waited until 1963, by which time Robinson was already in the Hall of Fame. A fourth team, the Chicago White Sox, played Chet Hajduk as a pinch-hitter on April 16, 1941. It was his only major-league game, and he was the White Sox’s only 42 until 1954.

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The Boston Red Sox took until the war years to begin handing out 42s, which is surprisingly odd. World War II was a time when the majors were scraping the barrel, bringing in anyone and everyone who could play decently and wasn’t in the armed services. One imagines spring training of the time to be chock-a-block with prospects, the teams hoping to find quality via quantity, and thus giving out high numbers by necessity. If they did, either most of the high-numbered prospects didn’t stick, or those who did were changing to more respectable, lower numbers once the games that counted began.

The 1943 Red Sox did some juggling with the number 42. Rookie outfielder Tom McBride began the year with it, but he was demoted to the minors in mid May. A month later, left fielder Babe Barna was traded to Boston from the Giants. Barna, in his fifth and final season, got 42 at first but soon switched to No. 8. The Red Sox likewise switched, giving Barna a ticket to the minors at the end of July. A September call-up brought McBride back to Boston, where he took back the 42 mantle. The next season, he would be No. 25.

Neither player was a league stalwart: Barna played just over 200 games in his career, McBride about double that, and both hovered near replacement level. Boston’s next 42, Andy Gilbert, had even less to brag about. Gilbert played six games for the Red Sox in 1942, wearing an optimistic No. 2, before joining the war effort. When he returned in 1946, Boston gave him 42. He got into two games, went 0-for-1, scored his lone big-league run as a pinch-runner, and bid adieu.

The New York Yankees gave out their first 42 in May of 1946. Bill Drescher had been in pinstripes the last two years, with four different numbers. The reserve catcher began 1946 as No. 29 but was switched to 42. He played five games in May, four as a pinch-hitter or late-inning replacement, and by going 2-for-6 had his best season in the majors. It wasn’t enough: the Yankees demoted him to Triple-A, and he never saw the bigs again.

Number 42 did see use again that season, when a September call-up wore it for two pitching starts. He won both against the Philadelphia A’s, and thus began the career of Vic Raschi. The hurler had lost three prime development years to wartime service and was 27 years old when he made his debut. In seven more seasons in the Bronx—none played as 42; he eventually settled on 17—he became a reliable cog in the Yankees’ rotation, going to four All-Star Games and (as you’d expect with those Yankees) winning six championships. He was the second-best pre-Robinson 42 in the American League.

The best was the first to play with the Cleveland Indians: Bob Lemon. He wore it in 1942, his second go-round with Cleveland—though in neither year did the future Hall-of-Fame pitcher throw a single pitch. He had come up as a third baseman and got a handful of plate appearances in both ’41 and ’42 as such.

After Lemon’s three years in the U.S. Navy, Cleveland started him in 1946 with a new number and a new position, center field. Soon they decided that, as a hitter, he might make a good pitcher. He pitched his first game in June of that year and didn’t look back. He would have seven 20-win seasons as an Indian (and as No. 21). Even his hitting came around, with a lifetime 82 OPS+ and around 10 WAR added to his career totals with the stick, which may have given him that final nudge into Cooperstown.

Cleveland didn’t do remotely as well with their next 42s. Pitcher Pete Center got the number in 1945, having played part of the season as No. 40. He had been an Indian in ’42 and ’43 but got his biggest chance to stick in ’45. He would go 6-3, his ERA a hair under 4.00. He would make it back in 1946 with a lower number—but a higher ERA—and his replacement-level career faded away.

Catcher Ralph Weigel inherited Center’s 42 in 1946, though he also had a spell wearing 33. Six games and a dozen plate appearances made no useful impression, and he spent the whole of 1947 with Baltimore in the minors. He would get fresh looks with the White Sox in 1948 and the Senators in ’49, never breaking zero WAR anywhere, and then hang up his mask. Despite the nice splashes of Raschi and Lemon, 42 in the American League was the domain of the Ralph Weigels and Chet Hajduks, a marker of fungibility.

Looking back to the National League, three of its teams rostered just one No. 42 before Robinson’s debut. For the Boston Braves, it was John Dagenhard, a wartime callup in 1943. The pitcher debuted on September 28 with two innings of scoreless relief. Five days later, he made his first start, scattering seven hits and four walks while giving up two unearned runs in a complete-game win over the Cubs.

That was the end of his career. Not just in the majors, but in organized baseball. He was reported by the Sporting News of December 6, 1945 to be “voluntarily retired,” the only mention of him in those pages in more than two years. He wasn’t in the armed services, like so many placed on the “National Defense Lists” of the teams. War industry work may have claimed him, but there’s no sign for or against the idea. He just left behind a career that had shown a spark of true promise.

The New York Giants’ representative was Gene “Junior” Thompson. After four years pitching with Cincinnati and three years away at war, he joined New York for the 1946 season. His years in Cincy had been good, good, bad, and bad, in that order, and the Giants made a reliever of him. His stuff played up in relief. He finished 27 games for the Giants out of 39 total games pitched, though he notched only four saves (as calculated later). His 4-6 mark was belied by a superb 1.29 ERA, itself belied by a more ordinary 4.35 FIP. (Half the runs he allowed were unearned.) He traded his 42 for a 35 next season, which was his last in both the Polo Grounds and the majors.

One borough over, the Brooklyn Dodgers handed out their first 42 in 1939. George Jeffcoat had spent 1936 and ’37 in Flatbush as an indifferent pitcher used mostly in relief. The Yankees organization picked him up briefly, but Brooklyn reclaimed him in the ’38-’39 offseason. His old 23 exchanged for 42, he pitched two innings of scoreless mop-up relief on April 18. This didn’t earn him a second look: He was sent down to Nashville, his time as a Dodger over. He would play a little wartime ball with the Braves in 1943, and that would be it.

Considering future history, it is unsettling how little respect the Dodgers had for a player they would give No. 42. Of course, with Branch Rickey still in the Cardinals front office at this point, it would be a very different Dodgers team when it issued the number a second time.

The Chicago Cubs had three 42s in the 1930s, beginning with a standard story. Beryl Richmond relieved in four spring games for the Cubs in 1933, allowing 10 hits and two walks over 4.2 innings, though he conceded just one run. This wasn’t enough for the defending pennant winners, who sent him back to the minors. He resurfaced with Cincinnati the next year, though weirdly without a uniform number, and pitch half a dozen games, which ended his big-league career.

In 1934, Chicago gave out No. 42 to Grover Cleveland. Okay, it was actually Tuck Stainback, but you’ll soon see why I made that joke. Stainback broke in as a rookie wearing 42, and though he didn’t have a great year (the outfielder’s OPS+ was 90), he wasn’t dumped back into the minors. Instead, when the Cubs sent 13-year vet Riggs Stephenson to the minors, they gave Stainback his No. 5 for the ’35 season.

Stainback’s 42 then went to Walter Stephenson, no relation to Riggs. Walter hung around as the Cubs’ third catcher for two seasons, having a good ’35 when he could play and a bad ’36 where he didn’t play much at all. He’d move over to the Phillies in 1937 for his last taste of the majors, and the Cubs reassigned his 42…to Tuck Stainback.

Stainback, you see, had done even worse the following two years than he had in his rookie effort, falling into a reserve role. Chicago kept him around but transferred his single-digit number to shortstop Billy Jurges. Jurges wasn’t new to the club—this was his seventh season there—but his play didn’t militate against his getting a slightly shinier number. Tuck’s did, and thus he had two non-consecutive terms as Chicago’s 42.

Stainback stayed that one season more at Wrigley before starting to drift around the majors. Despite his awful career stats, though (-5.2 fWAR; -6.6 bWAR), he lasted 13 years in the majors. He played for four pennant-winning teams: the ’35 Cubs, ’40 Tigers, and ’42-’43 Yankees, winning the World Series that final year. He may have been objectively the worst of the early 42s, but he ended up one of the more successful.

The Philadelphia Phillies played even looser with 42 at this time than the Cubs did. If Chicago brought Grover Cleveland to mind, Philly was more like the era of the antipopes, or perhaps Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

First with the number was Curt Davis in 1934. This pitcher had gotten into the game late in life, signing his first pro contract at age 24 and reaching the Phillies at 30. He had an excellent rookie year, with an ERA under 3.00 at pitcher’s purgatory Baker Bowl, and a winning 19-17 record with a team that won just 56 games.

A new player donned the 42 to begin 1935. Mickey Haslin had already played two years with the Phillies, as numbers 18, 5, and 22. Despite advancing to become their first-line shortstop, Haslin got a much higher number as his reward. He didn’t even get the number all to himself. When pitcher Hugh Mulcahy joined the squad in July, he also was assigned No. 42.

This would have been confusing enough had Davis been given a new number. According to my sources, he wasn’t. Possibly he went without a number, as Beryl Richmond had for a time with the Cubs. Possibly a change fell through the record-keeping cracks, but as Davis would begin 1936 as No. 42, it seems unlikely. Not as unlikely as three players simultaneously having the same number on the same team, but like the Dodgers of that era once having three men on third base, one can only shrug and say, “Those were the Phillies for you.”

As just stated, Davis began 1936 as No. 42 for Philadelphia, all alone this time. Mickey Haslin was changed to 25; Hugh Mulcahy to 40. In May, though, Davis was traded to the Cubs, and one of the players coming back in the deal, Fabian Kowalik, inherited the 42. Kowalik, in his last of three years in the majors, went 1-5 before being waived. He’d fetch up with the Boston Bees—where Haslin had been traded earlier that year.

The now apparently cursed 42, appropriately, went back to Mulcahy for the ’37 season. That year began his string of four years as the workhorse of a horrible team. He shed the 42 in 1938 for a much more respectable 15, and later No. 8, but it availed him nothing. He would pitch almost a thousand innings from 1937 to 1940, go 40-76, and for the seemingly inevitable line in wire reports of his starts, be tagged with the nickname “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy.

Curt Davis, for his part, had a fine career that lasted until he was, of course, 42. He made two All-Star teams, won a pennant with the 1941 Dodgers, and had a top-five MVP finish with the Cardinals in 1939. Someone traded the wrong pitcher in 1936, but those were the Phillies for you.

Philadelphia gave the number an extended rest before awarding it to Charley Stanceu in 1946. Stanceau had pitched a year for the Yankees before the war, and Philly picked him up off the waiver scrap heap when New York decided the post-war version of him didn’t help them. He was better for the Phillies, but not by much: 2-4, with ERA and FIP marks both a little over 4.00. A bad spring training in 1947 finished him with Philadelphia and the majors, just as Robinson was coming in.

The St. Louis Cardinals first handed out a 42 in 1940, to a September call-up who would play in seven games that year. He batted just .185 with a .444 OPS, but drove in six runs in his seven games. He would have a substantial career in which he would wear eight other numbers, but today he might be best remembered for a connection to Jackie Robinson much less innocent than sharing a uniform number. The player was Harry Walker.

“Harry the Hat” was strongly rumored to be part of a group of Cardinals in 1947 who threatened to organize a team-wide, even league-wide, strike against the Dodgers for playing Robinson. NL President Ford Frick is credited with issuing a stirring statement that stamped out the brushfire, but as I have observed once before, modern scholarship has cast doubt on whether Frick, rather than a creative sportswriter, produced those words. Harry’s involvement was assumed partly because he was Mississippi born, and partly because his own brother, Brooklyn’s Dixie Walker, was himself not comfortable playing with Robinson.

Evidence of racial animus is plentiful and conflicted. For the prosecution, there’s Walker’s own not exactly categorical denial of the conspiracy, clashes with several black players during his managing career (including Jim Wynn and Joe Morgan), and a notable old-fashioned curmudgeonliness in his latter years, accent on “old-fashioned.” The defense can cite good relations with black players like Bill White (the future NL president who had become a friend of Walker’s) and with dark-skinned Hispanic players like Roberto Clemente and Matty Alou. Wondering whether the ballplayer of 1947 and White’s fishing buddy of the 1980’s are exactly the same unchanged person adds its own complication.

In the end, I may be best off just observing the sharp historical irony of Harry Walker and Jackie Robinson debuting with the same number. How merited that irony is, I will leave to the judgments of my readers.

Future wearers of the Cardinals’ 42 were less controversial, though not without incident. The next was Hersh Lyons on April 17, 1941. His major-league pitching career lasted an inning and a third, in which he gave up a double and three walks (one intentional), but no runs, to the Reds. St. Louis came from behind to take the lead while he was on the mound and held it to the end, two outs after Lyons departed with the bases loaded. Despite this, the win was awarded to Lyons’ successor, Max Lanier. By today’s rules, Lyons should have had the win and Lanier the save. Poor Hersh never got another chance to card a major-league victory.

Lyons’ departure left the number free for when St. Louis traded for Harry Gumbert. A middling starter for the Giants, Gumbert paid dividends for the Cardinals. Splitting time between starting and relieving, he had one of his most successful seasons by WAR, backing it with an 11-5 record as a Redbird in ’41. That performance earned him a change to No. 19 for the rest of his St. Louis tenure, which would include two pennants and the 1942 championship. His career would end in 1950 after 15 seasons.

Number 42 in St. Louis took the war off, returning in 1946. It went to Danny Litwhiler, himself returning from the service. He had been No. 8 when he left, but outfielder Terry Moore had claimed that number in his absence and wasn’t yielding it. The clash, if there was one, didn’t last long. After six hitless pinch-hitting appearances, Litwhiler was traded to the Boston Braves. he prospered in Boston that year, resuming what had been a reasonably successful career. Litwhiler would last until 1951, a total of 11 years, 19 bWAR, and 17.6 fWAR.

Inheriting Litwhiler’s number was Ken Burkhart, who had arrived with a splash as a 28-year-old rookie in 1945. His gaudy 18-8 record that season, though, did not mean he could keep his No. 10, not with players flooding back from the war. It went back to its previous owner—Harry the Hat—and he got 42. He wore it throughout 1946, as he suffered the start of the arm woes that would short-circuit his career. In 1947, he got back his 10, as Harry Walker switched to No. 5, but the magic of 1946 didn’t return with it.

For the most pre-Robinson 42s, we look to the cradle of pro baseball, Cincinnati. The first Reds 42 was Dusty Cooke in 1938, who had played seven years in the majors but was trying to catch back on after a season with Double-A Minneapolis. He did decently, compiling 0.9 WAR as a half-time corner outfielder, but he wasn’t a defensive standout, and manager Bill McKechnie was building the Reds around defense. Cooke returned to the minors in 1939 and never got back up.

Two seasons later, Red Barrett’s number came up. In his four years with Cincinnati, 42 was Barrett’s fourth number. He had been 12, 61, and 38 the three previous seasons. As one might guess, he was no roster stalwart in any of those years: he topped out at 28.2 innings pitched in 1938. He saw action in three May 1940 games, did okay twice and badly once, then was sent down to Indianapolis, where he did not do well at all.

That was the end of Red the Red, but the war gave him a second chance, and he took it. He returned to the majors in 1943 as a Boston Brave, had two mediocre campaigns, then broke out in 1945. Between Boston and the Cardinals, he went 23-12, led the NL in innings pitched and complete games, and finished third in MVP voting. He would never do remotely as well again, but for one year he made Cincinnati sad they didn’t have No. 42 around anymore.

Except, of course, that they did, just with other players wearing it. In 1944, it was Tommy de la Cruz, a Cuban pitcher getting a chance in America thanks to wartime scrambling for talent. He had a decent 9-9 year in 20 starts and 14 relief appearances, a 3.19 FIP backing his 3.25 ERA. His season highlight was a one-hit win against Pittsburgh, the first one-hitter ever by a Latino player in the majors. His first loss of the season came when future Cardinals 42 Danny Litwhiler hit the lone home run in a 1-0 game.

Despite this promising season, de la Cruz never pitched in the majors again. His abrupt departure got baseball historians digging in later years. Some speculated he had been drafted in the U.S. and went into the Cuban military to avoid American service, but this isn’t true. Instead, he appears to have liked his career prospects better in the Mexican League, building up toward its free-spending challenge to the majors.

There is one other factor to consider, an apposite one given the player’s number. Tommy de la Cruz was black. At least he was black enough, or close enough to black—sifting through all the racial gradations left me feeling almost soiled—that Cincinnati had to fend off accusatory inquiries from press and fans. Reds brass may have decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to lure him back.

Did de la Cruz beat Robinson to breaking the color line? And what other players of color —like Bobby Estalella, Alex Carrasquel, and Hiram Bithorn— broke through ahead of de la Cruz? Answering those questions would require hair-splitting racial analysis and calculations of what percentage would be “too black” or “not too black” to play. Such a process itself stands as a mockery and a rebuke of the system of segregation that besmirched and hobbled baseball for generations. Thank goodness Jackie helped kick that BS to the curb. And I don’t mean a blown save.

The next Cincinnati 42 was also singular, in a less historically provocative way. Hod Lisenbee broke into the majors in 1927 at the advanced age of 28. He pitched six seasons with the Senators and Red Sox, his rookie season being the one true bright spot. He drifted into the minors for three years, made a two-month comeback with the 1936 A’s, and submerged back into the minors, seemingly never to return.

The wartime talent crunch gave him a final chance. Reds manager Bill McKechnie invited him to spring training, where at age 46 he was almost three times as old as 16-year-old Joe Nuxhall, who had pitched in one game for Cincinnati the previous year. (Nuxie was 15 at the time, the youngest player in history.) Lisenbee caught on and went north wearing that particular number. His drab season (1-3, 5.49 ERA, 4.80 FIP) was brightened only by his being in the majors once again. He pitched his last game on September 7, about half a month before his 47th birthday.

His 42 jersey barely hit the clubhouse floor before the Reds assigned it to Johnny Hetki. Rookie Hetki pitched five times for Cincinnati in the campaign’s waning weeks, including the season finale, a 12-inning, complete-game 3-2 loss to the Cardinals. Hetki would inch up to No. 40 the next season, improving on his first year across the board but couldn’t manage the next step. He had a mundane eight-season career over 10 years, including stops with the Browns and Pirates.

The number next went to George Burpo in 1946, who gives perspective to Hetki’s career. Burpo debuted in relief on June 9, with the Reds down 10. He allowed two hits and an inherited runner to score before recording the final out of the inning. His next chance was July 3, with Cincinnati again down 10. He allowed two hits, five walks, and four runs in his two innings. He got no third chance.

The Singular 42

Those are the 36 players who wore No. 42 before Jackie Robinson’s opening day. Perhaps the strongest link between them all is how unattached they were to that number. Most were eager to get something lower, if they managed to stick in the majors long enough to have that option. Larry French may have hung onto it for three years, but he gladly left it behind when he got traded.

It was the general rule that lower numbers were preferable to higher ones, a sign you were integral to the team rather than an afterthought. Big stars didn’t wear big numbers, or they stopped wearing them once they established themselves as stars—or at least regulars. This means Robinson’s 10 years with his number, aside from its greater historical importance, were highly unusual in a numerological sense.

Did Robinson feel disrespected or slighted when he was assigned No. 42? If his pride felt a wound, he didn’t show it. In his own autobiography, he mentions the number once upon receiving it and never again. Once he was established as a regular, certainly once he won the MVP Award in 1949, he would have had the pull to get a lower number, but he didn’t use it. In the great drama of his life, Robinson seems to have kept his attentions on bigger matters. He broke this peculiar psychological barrier as an afterthought—and may have lowered other players’ resistance to high numbers by his example.

This decision, or non-decision, had a tremendous effect on his legacy. Carrying this one number for his whole career made Bud Selig’s grand gesture in 1997 possible. Had Robinson’s playing days been divided by a change to, say, No. 20 starting in 1950, Selig would have had an impossible choice. Honor the number with which Robinson broke the color line or the one in which he played the bulk of his career? Or retire both and risk backlash from the overkill? The Commissioner would have found other ways to honor the golden anniversary of Robinson’s debut, the retirement notion discarded as unworkable.

Robinson may not have given much thought to the number he wore, but that indifference ended up making his number more important than he could have imagined.

References and Resources

A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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I would love to know if there exists any recording of that first time Jack was announced for the first time on that April 15 day. In my mind I always make the call (with him coming up to the plate) as, “Now batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, number 42, first baseman Jackie Robinson. Robinson.”


What a terrific article. Thank you.