Today in Sports History: April 15th

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(Jackie Robinson. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

4/15/1947 - Jackie Robinson breaks the color barrier

Jackie Robinson fielded first base when he played in the Brooklyn Dodgers' first game of the 1947 season. In doing so, he was the first African American in over half a century to play in a Major League Baseball game. Robinson went 0-4 and the Dodgers won 5-3, though the stat sheet was completely irrelevant. The fact that he held is own was all that mattered.

Robinson's breakthrough would have been a disaster had he failed to perform on the field. But in the face of bigotry from seemingly all sides, Jackie came through with flying colors. He batted .297 in his rookie campaign and led the league in stolen bases. He won the Rookie of the Year award and helped the Dodgers capture the National League pennant. Robinson never lost his temper, even when he was getting thrown at or racially taunted or booed. Robinson just played the game, and he did that better than almost everyone.

Soon, black players would find their way to almost every roster in the league. Robinson only played ten seasons before hanging it up, and in those years, he won the MVP in 1949 and a World Series championship in 1955. On the fiftieth anniversary of his breaking of the color barrier, baseball retired Robinson's #42 jersey on every team in baseball. Today, virtually every player wears #42 on the anniversary of his debut.

Yet for one of the greatest athletes of all time, Robinson got old in a hurry. Complications from diabetes and other illnesses made him accumulate gray hair when he was still in his 40's. He died on October 24, 1972 at the age of 53. In his last public appearance, which he made ten days earlier at the World Series, Robinson urged for there to be a black manager in baseball (which there was not at the time). Shortly thereafter, the Cleveland Indians hired Frank Robinson (no relation) to serve that very role.

In the end, the anniversary of Jackie's debut is easily the most important one in all of sports, and one of the most significant moments in the civil rights movement. By breaking the color barrier, Jackie Robinson equalized sports twenty years before the rest of America figured it out. When fans sat down and watched their hometown players, it didn't matter if they were black or white as long as they were good. And in the end, that's the way it should be.

4/15/1952 - Octopi belong on the ice

In 1952, brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano were working at the family fish store when the topic of hockey came up. The hometown Red Wings were set to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, and they needed all the help they could get. That was when Jerry, noticing that Pete was holding a dead octopus, got a brilliant idea.

In the opening game between the two teams, the brothers purchased tickets for the game and sat within throwing distance of the rink. Then, when the Wings' Gordie Howe scored the first goal of the game, they pulled out a boiled octopus and hurled it onto the ice. The octopus' eight tentacles were meant to represent the eight wins the Wings needed to claim the Stanley Cup. It was easily the most unique good luck charm the sport of hockey had ever seen.

The perplexed players and referees didn’t know what to make of it. After all, it wasn't everyday that a cephalopod rained from the stands. One referee got near it and scurried away when he realized what it was, another player began hitting it with his stick. The crowd loved it.

The Red Wings went on to win that game and sweep the series.They then advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they swept the Montreal Canadians and became the first team to win out in the postseason. And thus, one of sports most bizarre rituals was born. Red Wings fans continue to smuggle octopi into the stadium with the intention of throwing them onto the ice, and the practice can be seen at almost every Wings postseason game.

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4/15/1965 - Havlicek steals the ball

Johnny Most, the loyal, grizzle-toned voice of the Boston Celtics, spouted the NBA's most famous call in a Game 7 thriller between the Celtics and 76ers. Wilt Chamberlain had scored six points in less than a minute to pull Philadelphia within one, and on the Celtics' next possession, Bill Russell's inbound pass hit a guard wire that helped support the stanchion of the basket. The ball ricocheted out of bounds, leaving the Sixers five seconds to overcome a 110-109 deficit.

Sixers guard Hal Greer stood near near his own basket, ready to inbound the ball. He located Chet Walker on the right side of the floor and lobbed it towards him. But as the pass neared its intended target, Celtics forward John Havlicek leaped into the air and slapped the ball to teammate Sam Jones, who streaked down court and ran out the clock. The Boston Garden roared in approval, as fans stormed the court and raised Havlicek into the air in triumph.

Most's call went as follows: "Greer is putting the ball in play. He gets it out deep and Havlicek steals it! Over to Sam Jones! Havlicek stole the ball! It's all over! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek is being mobbed by the fans! It's all over! Johnny Havlicek stole the ball!"

"Havlicek stole the ball" would become the most famous line in basketball history. The Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals, where they won their eighth title in eleven years.

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(The San Diego Chicken. Photo by Kevin Reece, Icon SMI)

4/15/1974 - San Diego Chicken debuts

The San Diego Chicken makes his first appearance at a San Diego Padres home game. The Chicken, also known as the "Famous Chicken," was not the first mascot in professional sports -- but he was the first to become nationally adored. The popularity of the chicken was so great that it led a plethora of sports teams to create mascots of their own. And if you think being in a hot, sweaty chicken suit for four hours a day is a grueling job, you're right. But it also pays: Ted Giannoulas, who wore the costume from its inception, was reportedly making a six-figure salary within five years of the Chicken's debut.

While the Chicken was happily embraced by the San Diego Padres, he is not the team's official mascot: the Swinging Friar, who had been with the team since 1958, is.

4/15/2000 - Ripken gets to 3,000

Cal Ripken Jr. adds another accomplishment as he gets career base hit No. 3,000. It was already a forgone conclusion that he would wind up in Cooperstown, having already broken Lou Gehrig's consecutive game streak. Getting to 3,000 was just the icing on the cake. ''I was relieved; I felt a weight was lifted from my shoulders,'' Ripken said after the game. ''I thought about how lucky you are and how you started.'' Ripken retired in 2001 with 3,184 career hits.

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(Duncan looks back and Crawford. Photo by Donna McWillia, AP Photos)

4/15/2007 - Duncan gets tossed for laughing

Towards the end of the 2007 regular season, the Spurs and Mavericks were playing a rather meaningless game in Dallas when things got interesting. Tim Duncan, who had complained earlier to lead referee Joe Crawford, was given a technical in the third quarter while sitting on the bench. Duncan didn't appear affected by it, in fact he was laughing jovially about something on the Spurs bench.

Less than a minute after his first technical, Crawford rang up Duncan with another T, ejecting him from the game. Duncan looked baffled at the call; all he had done was laugh. Spurs coach Greg Popavich pleaded his case, while Duncan quietly exited the playing area. San Antonio lost 91-86. After the game, both Duncan and Crawford were accosted by media members wanting to know what happened.

"Before he gave me the two technical fouls, he made a call and I was shaking my head, and he walks down and stares at me," Duncan said. "He says, ‘Do you want to fight? Do you want to fight?’ I didn’t say anything to him there, either."

Crawford, who insisted that he did nothing wrong, was widely respected as one of the best officials in the game. But he was also known for being extremely quick to call technical fouls and at times taking the game into his own hands. In a 2003 playoff game, he dished out four technical fouls to the Dallas Mavericks in the first ten minutes.

Duncan was fined $25,000 for "verbal abuse of an official," which was ironic considering he was ejected after not really saying anything. David Stern suspended Crawford for the rest of the season and left no indication that he would be back at all. "He’s been specifically asked by me to change his conduct and he wasn’t able to do it," Stern said. "Probably, he doesn’t wish to work in the NBA anymore. It’s our plan to talk about the future."

Crawford's absence marked the first time in two decades that hadn't worked an NBA Finals game. Crawford was reinstated in September 2007, although people would always wonder if he had it in for the Spurs. By the time Crawford returned to the league, the snafu involving Duncan was yesterday's news. The mess involving Tim Donaghy was the story everyone was talking about.

Further reading:

When octopuses are flying in Detroit... [New York Times]

Mascots: We Need a Capitals Idea [Washington Post]

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