NEW YORK — LaTroy Hawkins has heard the stories from his 87-year-old grandfather, about his days of picking cotton in Mississippi, about the times when there were no black players in big league baseball.
And about what it meant when Jackie Robinson broke the game’s colour barrier.
“Without Jackie, I wouldn’t be in front of you,” the Los Angeles Angels pitcher told several dozen kids at a Bronx ballfield Sunday. “Jackie’s role in my life has been tremendous.”
From Dodger Stadium to Fenway Park, there were ceremonies as Major League Baseball honoured Robinson and his legacy. Video tributes and on-field celebrations at every ballpark included his family, his former teammates, players from the Negro Leagues and NBA great Bill Russell.
Players, managers, coaches and umpires all wore No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day to remember the 65th anniversary of the day the future Hall of Famer first took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Markers on each base noted the occasion.
“I’m very happy the players feel that connected,” said his daughter, Sharon Robinson. “Back in 1997, players were saying, ’Jackie who?’ So we’ve come a long way.”
Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, Hawkins and several former players joined Sharon Robinson at a youth clinic in a park where the old Yankee Stadium stood. Smiling boys and girls from the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program in Harlem eagerly showed off their gloves and jerseys for two-time All-Star Harold Reynolds.
There was a pregame tribute at the new Yankee Stadium on Sunday night featuring Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, and Sharon before the Angels played New York. Yankees stars Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano — who is named for the baseball pioneer — hugged the Robinsons as they gathered with three Tuskegee Airmen behind home plate.
Yankees centre fielder Curtis Granderson wore customized spikes with the Jackie Robinson Day logo on the back and No. 42 on the tongue. The shoes will be auctioned off later, with proceeds going to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
On a shelf in his locker, Granderson had a small figurine of Robinson sliding feet-first in his Brooklyn uniform. He pointed out that Robinson’s success provided opportunities for so many in baseball, not only blacks.
“It opened up doors for everybody. I think that’s the one thing he would be proud of,” Granderson said. “You just look at the diversity, all of which started with Jackie Robinson 65 years ago.”
Granderson’s teammate, Mariano Rivera, is the only active player still wearing No. 42. The number was retired by MLB 15 years ago on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut.
“I think it’s a great thing for baseball. I think it’s a great thing for life in general, continuing to promote his legacy,” Granderson said. “I don’t think it’s been forgotten, by the number of kids that are coming up to me saying, ’Hey, my first book report was on Jackie Robinson.’ These are 6, 7, 8, 9-year-olds that are doing it.”
Hawkins noted the dwindling percentage of black players in the big leaguers. There were only 8.5 per cent on opening day in 2011 — there were twice as many in 1990 when the Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida started tracking the number.
Hawkins thanked his granddad for always steering him toward baseball instead of basketball and encouraged parents to do the same.
Asked whether he thought MLB would ever again achieve a high population of black players, he said: “Anything’s possible.”
Jackson recalled his days in the minor leagues, where he was not allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as his teammates. He said he sometimes spent the night on the couch at the apartments of Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi, Dave Duncan and others.
“It was a very embarrassing time in your life,” he said.
Jackson paused to “to remember what it was like, what I went through” and reflected on the likes of Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, black players who followed Robinson to the Dodgers.
“He represented all of us,” Jackson said. “I really feel he represented black and white.”
Newcombe and former Los Angeles star Tommy Davis threw out ceremonial first pitches at Dodger Stadium before the game against San Diego.
Hall of Fame Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, who had missed five games because of a bad cold, returned to the broadcast booth. Scully, now 84, called Brooklyn games for more than seven years when Robinson played.
“All I want to do is think about the game and Jackie and how grateful I am to be back,” Scully said.
Tweeted current Dodgers star Matt Kemp: “Thank u Jackie Robinson!!!”
In Boston, former Robinson teammate Ralph Branca threw out the ceremonial ball before Tampa Bay played Boston. The 86-year-old Branca tossed the pitch on one bounce from the front edge of the mound to his son-in-law, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
Branca remembered being at Ebbets Field a day before Robinson’s debut.
“I was in the locker room when Jackie walked in. I walked over, shook his hand, ’Welcome aboard,”’ Branca said.
“I didn’t think about the colour of his skin because I lived on a block that was the United Nations of all. It was four black families, about nine families (of) Italian extraction, two Irish, two German, two Jewish. So it was a league of nations on my block. So blacks, I played with them, went in their house, they came into mine. So seeing Jackie meant nothing special or different to me,” he said.
At Safeco Field, Russell bounced his first pitch to Seattle’s Chone Figgins before the Mariners hosted Oakland. At Turner Field, Robinson’s grandson, Jesse Sims, was on the field with Atlanta outfielder Michael Bourn before Milwaukee visited Atlanta. At Citizens Bank Park, Harold Gould and Mahlon Duckett of the Philadelphia Stars from the Negro Leagues were recognized, along with members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
At Kansas City, Cleveland manager Manny Acta said it was a special day.
“It has a lot of meaning to me. Those guys opened the way for everyone else. Jackie and Larry Doby, Frank Robinson was the first African-American manager. And Felipe Alou, Tony Perez. It was tough for those guys, even tougher for guys like us, minorities and foreigners.”
“It wasn’t tough for me,” the Dominican-born Acta said. “I had it made because of guys like that. Those guys had to break the ice. They did it for us.”