What should the future of No. 42 look like?

Brian Kersey

Last weekend, while tooling around the Kitsap Peninsula we visited the tourist-friendly town of Poulsbo, Washington. As usual, I spent half my time looking at second-hand books, and came across this odd little tome: Sacred Records: Perspectives on the Records That Have Shaped Sports History. Seven of the dozen records are baseball records, but there's not much else to recommend the book, which seems to be written for precocious fourth-graders.

Still, I've found that almost every baseball book contains at least a nugget or three, and this one's no exception.

There's a chapter about the 1906 Cubs, who won 116 games. The book's editor interviewed Al Rosen, who played for the Cleveland Indians in 1954, when that club won 111 games. The book was published in 1999, and Rosen's thoughts conclude with this:

Time revered records fall. The home run record fell and I'm a proponent of that. I think that's what the fans want. The fans are spending a lot of money to get these kinds of thrills.

I loved every minute of the '98 baseball season. I followed McGwire and Sosa and I thought it was a magnificent two-man display of sheer determination, courage and great sportsmanship. Along with the Yankees winning, I thought baseball needed a jump start and certainly it got it.

Speaking of which, there's also a chapter about McGwire's home-run record, which includes an interview with McGwire. It's pretty embarrassing, and I'm just a guy sitting here reading the thing.

Anyway, the one passage in the book that really got to me was, oddly enough, not about a record at all. There's a chapter about Hack Wilson's single-season RBI record, and for some reason the editor talked to ... Tom Goodwin, who was born 20 years after Hack Wilson died.

Why Tom Goodwin? Because he was a "tablesetter" who batted leadoff for the Rangers in 1998, when Juan Gonzalez drove in 157 runs. Yeah, it's a stretch. But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part is that in a two-page interview, most of the first page is about a completely unrelated subject: wearing No. 42, which Goodwin did during his last three seasons with the Royals.

When I was drafted by the Dodgers in '89, it really sped up my history lessons because when you come up through the organization you saw pictures of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella and Don Drysdale. I was very fortunate because I didn't have to go searching for history, history came to me.

I remember Dave Henderson telling me when I got to Kansas City in '94, "Keep the tradition going." I really didn't know what he was talking about at the time, but he told me he wore 42 because Jackie Robinson wore 42 and it was a respectful way of saying thanks to him for what he had done. At the time I was wearing number 47 with the Royals, then I got sent down to the minors. When I came back up, 42 was available and I wanted it for that reason.

I've written about this before, and I've come to temper my stance somewhat. While I'm not convinced that putting No. 42 on every single major-league player is the best way to honor commemorate Jackie Robinson and the integration of Major League Baseball, I'm not convinced it's not, either. My personal opinion is that honors mean more when they're freely given, and nothing is more freely given than a player asking to wear 42, as opposed to be handed the jersey on a certain day in April every year. When Mariano Rivera retires and there's not a single player wearing that famous number except for one day in April, I think we've lost something valuable.

But now my concern is that Jackie Robinson Day has become, or will become, routine. Which it shouldn't be. This year was special because of the movie. But what about next year? What about 10 years from now. How will MLB ensure that Jackie Robinson Day feels special every year?

Here's one fantastically creative idea, from South Side Sox's Mark Primiano:

Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson. People that don't know what OBP is can tell you his number and who he played for. What I would love to see MLB do next April 15th is only a slight modification. The 14 expansion teams would still be wearing all 42s. But I want the original 16 franchises to wear the number of their first black player.

And not just that! I want them to wear the jerseys the team wore when that player made his major league debut. Can you imagine it? The entire White Sox roster in the old pinstripes wearing Minnie Minoso's number 9?

I'm sure we could come up with more great ideas. Sure, eventually you're going to run out of ideas. Maybe then you just start over, or maybe you have Babe Ruth Day one year, Jackie Robinson Day the next, and Roberto Clemente Day the next.

Like many things, this might have to wait for a new Commissioner. But we might at least hope that change is coming. Because the minute we stop noticing, we start forgetting.

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