Of all the Mets games I attended at Shea Stadium — and there were a lot — the one I remember best was on April 15, 1997, the night that Jackie Robinson's uniform number was retired from all of Major League Baseball, and the 50th anniversary of his first MLB game.
While most individual teams have retired a few uniform numbers that their outstanding players had worn, this was the first time that a number was retired across every team in both the American League and National League. This meant that from that date on, no major leaguer could again be assigned the late Robinson's number 42.
Robinson remains the only player to receive this honor, not just for his prowess as an athlete, but because he was the first African-American in the 20th century to integrate with the all-white MLB.
Robinson moved from the Negro Leagues and the Internal League to the MLB despite knowing he was be hissed and spat at, called slurs, and even threatened, by fans and players alike.
Though Robinson played for the Dodgers, the team had since moved from Brooklyn to the West Coast. So, the retirement ceremony was held in Queens, between the Los Angeles Dodgers and fellow National League team the New York Mets.
I was 10 years old. I couldn't tell you who won that day, but I do remember the Mets wore gray pinstripe uniforms, special for the occasion, as a throwback to 1947 — even though the Mets' first season was not until 1962.
Among the speakers at the mid-game ceremony was Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel Robinson, and President Bill Clinton (who attended despite being on crutches after knee surgery.)
In part, Clinton said in his speech:
I can't help thinking that if Jackie Robinson were here with us tonight, he would say that we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we can do better. We have achieved equality on the playing field, but we need to establish equality in the boardrooms of baseball, and throughout corporate America. And we need to make sure that, even as we celebrate his brilliant successor, Tiger Woods' victory in the Masters, we need even more of our young people from all walks of life to get their masters' degrees and help to make more of their lives in this country.
And he would remind us — look around this stadium tonight — that as we sit side by side at baseball games, we must make sure that we walk out of these stadiums together. We must stand for something more magnificent even than a grand slam home run. We ought to have a grand slam society, a good society where all of us have a chance to work together for a better tomorrow for our children. Let that be the true legacy of Jackie Robinson's wonderful, remarkable career and life.
Eleven years after that speech, America elected its first black president.
My family and our friends had great seats for the speeches — the kids at least. Security at Shea wasn't as tight in 1997, so when we saw an empty row behind home plate, the other kids and I grabbed it. After the ceremony, Robinson's grandson Jesse Simms left the field through an exit that was between the seats, so we leaned over the rail and had him autograph anything we could find — like those plastic Mets helmets they serve ice cream in at games.
I thought of that night at every subsequent baseball game I attended at Shea, as I saw Robinson's number displayed on the outfield wall, in a white circle with blue lines around it, to represent his Dodgers uniform, next to other retired numbers in circles with the Mets' blue and orange.
In 2004, Major League Baseball instituted Jackie Robinson Day every April 15. In 2009, it became tradition that every player would wear 42 on Jackie Robinson Day.
Robinson, who died in 1972, would have turned 94 years old Thursday, on the eve of Black History Month.