On April 15, 1997, I was a baseball-obsessed 13-year-old kid. Luckily for my brother and I, our father’s employer had box seats at Shea Stadium and we were able to attend a ton of Mets games throughout our formative years.
That specific night was the inaugural celebration of Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, 50 years to the day after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier when he made he debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were in town, kicking off a two-game series with the organization who gave a then-28-year-old man a chance to not only showcase his skills at the highest level but blaze the path for multiple generations of African-American ballplayers, as well as other players of color from various Latin American countries.
The Mets beat Los Angeles handily that night, riding five scoreless innings from Armando Reynoso and a 2-for-4, four RBI night from centerfielder Lance Johnson to a 5-0 victory, moving to 4-9 on the young season.
But the details of game number 13-of-162 wasn’t what resonated with fans of all ages on that night. The presence of an array of dignitaries — baseball and worldly — and the feeling that something bigger than the game of baseball was happening here was clearly evident — even to an 8th grader.
President Bill Clinton spoke to the denizens of fans packing Big Shea on that lovely Tuesday night, waxing eloquently about Jackie Robinson’s effect on the sacred institution of Major League Baseball, as well as his effect on mankind as a whole.
“It’s hard to believe that it was 50 years ago that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever,” Clinton said, as per the New York Times. “Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day; we’ve all been trying to catch up ever since. If Jackie Robinson were here today, he would say we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we could do a lot better.”
Those words, to an impressionable young man, struck a chord with me. I was well-versed in baseball history but was only beginning to explore the history of American civil rights further than the grammar-school basics.
Jackie Robinson became the intersection I needed to begin that quest for knowledge. I had known about Jackie Robinson, the ballplayer. Know I wanted to know about Jackie Robinson, the man.
So I read the harrowing tales of systematic, racially-charged abuse that Robinson and hundreds of ballplayers of color endured over decades of playing in the major leagues, as well as the generation of players before them who played in the Negro Leagues.
The talent Jackie Robinson possessed allowed him to break down the walls that had segregated the game for so long. But Jackie Robinson’s makeup as a human being was what allowed him to become the pioneer that brought this game, and this country together.
I’ll never forget the lesson Jackie Robinson’s story told me. I highly suggest you go out and find one that reverberates with you, too.