In 1997, upon the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, Major Legaue Baseball went all out.
Robinson, who lived in Stamford from 1955 until his death Oct. 24, 1972, was the rookie of the year in 1947, the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1949 and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. He endured many things — threats, racial slurs, resentment. But he remained above it all, never fighting back in those tough early years.
That 1997 season was dedicated to Robinson. MLB would announce that it was retiring the No. 42 forever. Only those who still had the number could keep it until they left the game. In fact, Mariano Rivera, the great Yankees closer who retired after the 2013 season, was the last to wear it.
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Stamford, CT, USA
The Courant went all out, too, publishing a special section in April of that year.
There were multiple stories, including reaching out to people and allowing them to say in their own words what Robinson meant to them.
Hall of Famer Hank Aaron: "Growing up in Mobile [Ala.], you accepted that there were a lot of things as a black person that you just couldn't do. Even when I was playing semi-professional ball with the Indianapolis Clowns, I never thought about the major leagues. It was not discussed. Jackie was not just a baseball player. He was interested in what was supposed to have been his at birth — freedom. That was the only thing he was concerned with. Whatever success I've had in professional baseball is simply because Jackie Robinson paved the way for me to get where I am today. If it had not been for him, I think the whole movement would have been set back 20 or 30 years. And who knows? I would have never had the opportunity — no question about it — I wouldn't have had the opportunity to break Babe Ruth's record, because there wouldn't have been enough time."
Hall of Famer Willie Mays: "I remember him being a great man. I remember Branch Rickey wrote in the paper that Jackie could not say something for two years. He had to take a back seat, and he couldn't fight back. When you go through two years of hell, not being able to say nothing, just play ball. ... that kills you. ... I still say if it hadn't been for Jackie, I wouldn't be talking to you. I'd probably be down in Birmingham, somewhere in one of those cotton fields. I don't know where I'd be."
Mo Vaughn of Norwalk, who at the time wore 42 for the Red Sox in honor of Robinson: "To me, Jackie Robinson represents an achievement of a struggle against great odds. It is the story of perseverance, the most uplifting story I know. He was more than a baseball player. He was a scholar, he was an officer in the army. His name represents many, many different things, many, many worlds beyond baseball."
Spike Lee, the filmmaker, producer, actor: "I think it's very simple. You can divide American history into two periods: Before Jackie and After Jackie. The United States was not as great a nation before Jackie. There's still a lot to be done, but his breaking the barrier has to be one of the more important things to happen in this country, period."
Robinson's first game was April 15, 1947. On April 15, 1997, at Jackie Robinson Night at Shea Stadium when the Mets played the Dodgers, President Bill Clinton was there and so were 54,047 fans. The Courant's Dom Amore reported it was about three times the normal crowd for a Mets game and that the cermony, which included Robinson's widow Rachel, was meant to be the centerpiece of a yearlong celebration of what Robinson meant to the world.
The Courant also had been at Robinson's first game, sports editor Bill Lee writing in part of his column, "Jackie Robinson became the first member of his race to make the big league without particular incident. First time at bat, Jackie drew a polite round of applause that was not as long or as prolonged as the greeting Dixie Walker got from Flatbush citizenry.
"Everyone seemed to take Robinson for granted. There was nothing remotely like a fuss to mark his history-making appearance in the Brooklyn lineup. I was in position to note the comings and goings on the Brooklyn bench. There was nothing about Robby's bearing or that of his tammates to give any indication that something was happening that had never happened before in organized baseball."
It, of course, would get worse before it got better for Robinson, who after his retirement wrote several letters to the editor that were published in The Courant.
``I heard what he heard and felt how he felt and we would talk about it like a debriefing,'' said his widow Rachel to The Courant's Desmond Conner for that 1997 tribute section. "Somehow, we'd put it aside when we entered our house. We tried to develop a pattern of doing that because home was the only haven we had. We didn't want to destroy our home by bringing anger into it and disappointment, although we had the tensions any family would have.''
They got past it, and nothing could be more prophetic than what is on Robinson's headstone: "A life is not important, except in the impact it has on other lives.''