(New York Daily News published this on April 16, 1997. This was written by K.C. Baker and Stephen McFarland.)
President Clinton stood in the Shea Stadium infield last night and paid tribute to Jackie Robinson, who 50 years earlier put baseball and America on the road to accepting the best in themselves.
As Robinson’s widow Rachel looked on, Clinton hailed Robinson’s historic breakthrough that "changed the face of baseball and the face of America."
On April 15, 1947, Robinson trotted onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn to play first base for the Dodgers.
He was the first African-American to play in the major leagues in the 20th century. His Hall of Fame career exposed the lie that blacks could not succeed at the highest levels of sports and smashed the conspiracy that made the lie possible.
"America is a better, stronger, richer country when we work together and give everyone a chance," Clinton said as he introduced Rachel Robinson to the cheering crowd.
She called on America to "recommit to equality of opportunity," adding simply, "this is a glorious moment for all of us."
Red, white and blue balloons were released during the tribute, between the fifth and sixth innings of a game between the Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers successors to Robinson’s Brooklyn team. The ceremony took less than 15 minutes.
Clinton, still on crutches after knee surgery for a tendon he tore March 14 while visiting golf pro Greg Norman, spoke simply and briefly.
He was introduced by Acting Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who announced that Robinson’s No. 42 would be retired by all Major League Baseball teams.
Players who now wear No. 42 in honor of Robinson like the Mets’ own Butch Huskey will be allowed to wear the number for the rest of their careers, Selig said.
"No man is bigger than baseball," Selig said, "except Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is bigger than baseball."
A jubilant crowd filled Shea to capacity to pay tribute to the anniversary. Fans bundled against the cool of the spring evening. Secret Service agents from Clinton’s security detail were everywhere.
Inside, they were greeted by a huge picture on the scoreboard of a young Robinson in his Dodger uniform throwing a ball. Underneath was the legend: "He was the handsome, heroic giant of our youth who taught us determination, taught us perseverance and, finally, he taught us justice."
The Diamondvision screen carried a picture of a smiling older Robinson dressed in a business suit and tie.
A couple of fans carried a banner through the grandstands that proclaimed "Jackie Robinson Stadium" a call that a new stadium proposed for the Mets be named for the Hall of Famer.
"It looks like a sellout, and I’m happy about that," said film maker Spike Lee, who grew up in Brooklyn and is working on a movie biography of the history-making baseball great. "This is a great night. People are coming out to honor Jackie, and the President’s here, which is a great gesture."
Jesse Robinson Simms, Robinson’s 18-year-old grandson, threw out the first ball to Mets catcher Todd Hundley.
Dressed in a dark green double-breasted blazer, with a gold 50th anniversary pin glinting at his left lapel, Simms stopped for a brief chat with Hundley and reclaimed the baseball.
"Oh, it felt great. It was a great honor," Simms said.
Dodger great Sandy Koufax, slugger Reggie Jackson and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan were among the baseball greats who attended. Larry Doby, who integrated the American League, was also there, as was former Gov. Hugh Carey.
Gov. Pataki, Mayor Giuliani, State Controller Carl McCall and Jesse Jackson also were invited. Robinson’s Dodger teammates Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski were introduced to the cheering crowd.
Because the President was in the ballpark, some fans had to wait as much as an hour to clear the security checkpoints. But the wait didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the historic night.
Blanche Hubbard, 89, of Queens, sat patiently in her wheelchair on the mezzanine level.
"I don’t mind waiting when it comes to Jackie," she said. "He was our first black baseball player, after all."