When you look onto a baseball field Friday, you’ll see a sea of 42s. That’s because it’s Jackie Robinson Day in MLB, the day on which every player wears a No. 42 jersey in honor of Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947.
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It’s a standing tradition now, anticipated and celebrated league-wide like a baseball holiday. But did you know the entire tradition started with a phone call from Ken Griffey Jr.?
It was 2007, the 60th anniversary of MLB integration and what would be the fourth of year of MLB’s Jackie Robinson Day. At that point, Robinson was celebrated annually but players didn’t wear his jersey. Griffey wanted to. So he called then-Commissioner Bud Selig one night with his idea. Here’s Selig’s recollection of the call, from a 2012 story on MLB.com:
“It was a Sunday night call, I remember,” Selig said. “I was just walking in the house, my phone was ringing. Ken called me, and it was his idea to wear No. 42 as a tribute to Jackie Robinson on the day commemorating his historic achievement.
“He asked my permission to do that, and I, of course, granted it. It told me a lot, however, about Ken, about how much he understood the history, how much he understood the impact of Jackie Robinson. So I’ve often gotten credit for something, but really he made a phone call to me on a Sunday night at home that I’ll never forget.
“And with Ken leading the way, it began to catch on with other players. Eventually it led to all on-field personnel throughout baseball wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day, a tradition that continues to this day and will continue at least as long as I’m around.”
It wasn’t the first time that Griffey had taken it upon himself to honor Robinson. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s MLB debut, Griffey was playing for the Mariners. There was no Jackie Robinson Day back then. But he had got permission from Rachel Robinson and the Jackie Robinson Foundation to wear No. 42 for a single game on April 15. So he asked the Mariners equipment manager to flip his normal jersey from 24 to 42, and voilà.
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When he asked to wear No. 42 again, Griffey thought it would be another singular gesture. He didn’t anticipate he’d be changing the way players dressed on April 15. Heck, this year, MLB teams are auctioning off No. 42 jerseys signed by every member of their team and giving the money to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. This has gotten much, much bigger than a one-time nod to Jackie.
“It was just my way of saying thank you, my way of giving back,” Griffey said in 2012. “I had no idea it would turn into something like this.”
In 2007, many other players joined Griffey’s tribute. More than 150 players wore No. 42 that year, the start of the tradition we know now. Back then, there was some worry that dozens of players wearing No. 42 would water-down the importance of Jackie Robinson Day. Garret Anderson said at the time that he flat-out didn’t think he was worthy to wear 42. Nonetheless, by 2009, all players and coaches were wearing No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.
These days, it’s a great tradition — one that started with a phone call and a legend wanting to honor an icon.