Grace of Jackie, Rivera symbolized by No. 42
Robinson's legacy lives on with every player donning number annually
Somehow, it seems appropriate that Mariano Rivera was the last Major League player to wear No. 42. Can you think of anyone more perfect to represent Jackie Robinson's legacy of fairness, dignity and social justice?
Robinson almost certainly would have approved. As his daughter, Sharon, said last month when Rivera was honored by the Jackie Robinson Foundation, "Mariano carried himself with dignity and grace, a true tribute to my dad."
Very few people can comprehend all that Robinson endured after breaking baseball's color line in 1947. He suffered countless indignities and assorted cruelties, and he did it because he understood something large and important was at stake. Robinson simply could not fail.
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One of the things Major League Baseball's annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day has done is humanize him and bring him to life for generations of fans and players who may have come to think of him as an idea. That he stands for justice and racial equality has at times threatened to overshadow that he was a living, breathing human being, a man who was treated like an animal.
There are other heroes to Robinson's story. Branch Rickey is one, obviously, Pee Wee Reese another. There were others, too. Still, they could only do so much. In the end, it was Jackie Robinson's life. He was the one who knew that every single time he walked onto a baseball diamond, he might be killed. He was the one who took fastballs in the ribs, heard the curses, slept in filthy hotels and was reminded constantly that many saw him as a second-class citizen.
Martin Luther King Jr. would tell Robinson that he helped pave the road to LBJ's civil-rights legislation because the idea of a black man -- proud and aggressive and incredibly talented -- playing with white baseball players forced Americans to confront a world they never imagined.
Commissioner Bud Selig has called Robinson's 1947 season "baseball's finest hour," and so today we remember it once more with ceremonies at every ballpark. When Selig retired Robinson's No. 42, a dozen players still wore it.
And then it was just one.
"I'm pleased he's the last one," Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, said in a 2011 interview.
Robinson and Rivera couldn't have been more different on the field. Robinson played fast and hard and as aggressive and as defiant as almost any player in history.
Rivera was completely different. He was ice to Robinson's fire, completely unflappable. To watch Rivera on the mound, a fan couldn't tell whether he was having a good day or a bad one.
Beyond the field, though, they were from the same cloth. Both of them understood that they were role models, and that people were watching -- and emulating -- everything they did.
Both of them believed it was important to use their time in the spotlight to make the world a better place, whether that meant raising money for charity or simply doing the right thing.
Rivera was given No. 42 by a Yankees equipment man. Only later did he come to understand why it meant so much to so many people.
Rivera has called the number both a responsibility and an honor.
"It's a privilege," he said during a ceremony attended by the Robinson family at Yankee Stadium last September.
"It was a little pressure," Rivera said. "But I took it as a challenge and gave my best, so I can make Mr. Jackie Robinson proud. I think I did OK."
In another interview, he said, "As a Christian, I truly believe that the Lord put people in different areas in our lives. He placed Jackie Robinson in an area where [the Lord] knew he would succeed. And he did."
So now with Rivera having retired, No. 42 stands as a reminder of Robinson's place in the history of the United States.
Every player will wear it today on Jackie Robinson Day, but for the rest of the season, it will be displayed in every ballpark as a symbol of courage and sacrifice.
Kids surely will turn to their parents and ask about 42 and why it's up there with their favorite players in San Diego and Boston and every city in between. In that, Robinson will live always.
He was indeed baseball's finest hour, and because baseball has made sure Robinson's memory will live forever, he'll stand permanently as a reminder of the importance of doing the right thing. That's what this day is about.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.