LOS ANGELES – In the days leading to Sunday evening, leading to a 61st year of inclusion, San Diego Padres outfielder Mike Cameron stood in a baseball dugout in San Francisco, eavesdropping on a conversation about Jackie Robinson.
A thought came to him. He shook his head at the enormity of it.
And he said, "Man, can you imagine baseball without any brothers?"
Cameron wore No. 42 Sunday night at Dodger Stadium, along with every one of the Los Angeles Dodgers. A gospel choir sang, and Rachel Robinson, elegant and dignified, stood near the middle of the infield, and Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson threw the first pitches, to Cameron and Juan Pierre. From the stands, for Aaron's benefit, a chant, "Barry sucks!"
On the video board, Aaron himself spoke of the time before Robinson and those who followed, of a closed game in a closed-minded era.
"Well," Aaron concluded, "along came Jackie Robinson. …"
Indeed, and in the weeks leading to Sunday evening, leading to a re-examination of the game six decades ago and its progress, Ken Griffey Jr. remembered a woman he once met in Seattle.
Sharon Robinson, on the 50th anniversary of her father breaking baseball's color barrier, bounced the ceremonial first pitch that day at the Kingdome. Griffey, acting as the catcher, asked her to sign a baseball for him. She did, and when he left, she asked who that young man was.
"Please ask him to come back," she said, embarrassed.
About two weeks ago, Griffey wrote her an email asking if it would be all right with her, with her family, if he took Jackie Robinson's 42 out of retirement and wore it for a single game.
"I just wanted to express myself, the admiration I have for him, for the one day," Griffey said.
"My reaction was, 'I love it! And my mother would love it.' " Robinson said. "You know, 10 years ago, there were baseball players that didn't know my father's name."
Griffey called Commissioner Bud Selig, trying him on his home phone and his cell phone before reaching him in his Milwaukee office. He explained his affinity for the Negro League players, how Joe Black was "the uncle and grandfather you wish you had," how he wished he had known Jackie Robinson.
And from that effort, for a few hours in baseball cities across North America, a proper tribute was born.
During Sunday evening's ceremony, 28 Dodgers stood along the third-base line, 28 42s shoulder to shoulder, no names across the backs, the faces white, black, Latin, Asian.
"It wasn't only to celebrate his life but [also] to celebrate what he did for mankind," Griffey said. "I think the Dodgers have that right to have everybody wear it because that's his team. … Those guys before us laid the groundwork from day one. They said, if you're going to be an athlete, these are some of the things you're going to have to go through.
"I didn't do it to get any attention. It just took on a life of its own. I'm glad people are doing it."
He wore his 42 in Chicago. In Oakland, where the New York Yankees played, Mariano Rivera wore his grandfathered 42, and shortstop Derek Jeter, second baseman Robinson Cano and manager Joe Torre joined him.
"He was a tough son of a gun," Torre said. "I'm just glad at this point, 60 years later, we're still tipping our caps to him. … He had such an arrogance. It was, like, electric when he was in the game."
In Los Angeles, Sharon Robinson was surrounded by them.
"I'm amazed," she said. "We're just amazed. So I love it."
The Dodgers did it well.
Don Newcombe recalled the "movement" begun with the Dodgers' signing of him, Roy Campanella and "my good friend and my idol, Jackie Robinson."
"I'd like to say," he said, "we did our job."
Rachel Robinson recalled the first drive away from Ebbets Field, the two of them having gotten through one day, Jack, as she called him and still does, on the field, she in the stands.
"What we felt at the end of the day was a great deal of relief," she said. "He was there."
For a day, 60 years since he breathed life into American sport, 35 years since his death, he was there again, at every position, on every lineup card, winning and losing, playing the game.
Four plastic bags held the Dodgers' game jerseys, signed and headed for the Jackie Robinson Foundation, by late Sunday night. Pierre said it had been a thrill, looking in from center field, seeing all those 42s.
"When I first put it on, I kind of took a deep breath," he said. "It was a special day. Guys in here should probably remember it for the rest of their careers."
Cameron, in the other clubhouse, appeared drained. It was he who had tried to imagine what several generations now find unimaginable.
"That moment that Jackie had," he said, "this was a chance to reach out and touch it. I'm just blessed with the opportunity more than anything. My job is to continue to represent that – because it's special."
- Jackie Robinson
- Rachel Robinson