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Lupica: Tribute to a Hero in Jackie’s Memory, No. 42 Lives Forever

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Lupica: Tribute to a Hero in Jackie's Memory, No. 42 Lives Forever

(New York Daily News published this on April 16, 1997. This was written by Mike Lupica.)

In the hallway behind home plate at Shea Stadium, underneath a sign that read "White House Press Filing Center," the President of the United States and the widow of Jackie Robinson sat together and watched baseball on the television set in front of them. It was the bottom of the fifth inning in a game between the Mets and the Dodgers and a small Mets rally, a small cheer like an overture to the ones to come, was started by Butch Huskey, who wears No. 42 because of Jackie Robinson. Who grew up in a better America because Robinson wore that number for the Brooklyn Dodgers one April afternoon in Brooklyn, 50 years ago yesterday. 

The Secret Service man closest to Bill Clinton carried the President’s black crutches. Bud Selig, acting commissioner of baseball, sat to Clinton’s left. Now the Mets, with two runs in the inning, were out in the bottom of the fifth. Rachel Robinson reached over and put a hand underneath the President’s elbow, helping him as he slowly got to his feet. Clinton tore up his knee a month ago in Florida and had surgery. But this was a night in New York, Jackie Robinson’s night in a New York ballpark, to play hurt.

A singer named Tevin Campbell went out to home plate first, sang "The Impossible Dream" while all this incredible black-and-white footage of Robinson’s career, his grand American life, was shown on the huge video screens in the outfield. Finally it was time for the President and Rachel Robinson, accompanied by Selig, to take the field at Shea.

Once, in the Brooklyn spring, Jackie Robinson played a ballgame for the Dodgers and started the real 20th century in sports. Now at Shea, 50 years after that, so close to the end of Jackie Robinson’s American century, baseball would come to a stop for him, this one last time.

Selig spoke first, and told the crowd that "no single person is bigger than the game . . . no single person other than Jackie Robinson." They had cheered the sight of the President and Rachel Robinson a few moments before.

Now they cheered Selig. He is hardly ever right about baseball. At Shea they knew he was right about Jackie Robinson.

Lupica: Tribute to a Hero in Jackie's Memory, No. 42 Lives Forever

The crowds always knew, all the way back to Ebbets Field, all that way back to that Brooklyn spring, when Robinson integrated baseball, and also integrated the stands.

Then Selig announced that baseball was permanently retiring No. 42. People like Huskey and Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox, another who wears the number to honor the man, could continue to wear 42 for the rest of their careers. But it would never again be issued by a big-league club. Another cheer at Shea, louder than the last. It had been so long since this ballpark had sounded this good. Felt this good. There are nights already this season when Robinson’s memory feels as big and important as Robinson the player once was. This was one of them, in the next baseball borough over from Brooklyn.

It was time for Bill Clinton to speak now, standing next to Rachel Robinson at home plate, baseball stopped here for both of them. He spoke right away of April 15, 1947.

"Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day," Clinton said, "and we’ve all been trying to catch up ever since."

He said that if baseball truly wants to honor Robinson’s legacy, it should not just do so on the field, but in the board rooms of the sport. Rachel Robinson nodded vigorously. More cheers at Shea. Clinton evoked the name of Tiger Woods winning the Masters, and the crowd went crazy for that one.

At 9:42, Clinton introduced Rachel Robinson, and she got the longest and loudest ovation of the night. Her grandson Jesse  his face so much his grandfather’s face  watched her from the tunnel behind the plate, holding her purse for her. She thanked the Clintons on behalf of her family, on behalf of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. She said the only tribute that would really have mattered to her husband would be for a more equitable society. The cheers stopped her again, on the night when baseball stopped for the Robinsons.

Lupica: Tribute to a Hero in Jackie's Memory, No. 42 Lives Forever

At the end she looked all around her, looked around at a ballpark that felt like a rally now, that felt like the end of some long march across the last 50 years, and said, "This is such a great moment for all of us."

She walked off the field alongside the President, 50 years after she and a son named Jackie Robinson Jr.  killed in an automobile accident in the 1970s  had taken a $5 cab ride from Manhattan to Brooklyn to watch her husband’s first game in the big leagues.

She was cheered by the old Dodgers at Shea last night, by old Joe Black, who came from the Baltimore Elite Giants to join Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, by Ralph Branca, who was white and who was Robinson’s friend from the beginning. And Sandy Koufax was in the house, too.

"Tell you something," Joe Black said before the game, standing where Bill Clinton and Rachel Robinson would stand later. "Roy Campanella’s gonna be here tonight, too. And Junior Gilliam. Don’t tell me they’re not gonna be here, because they are."

The big man closed his eyes, smiling, as if looking at some picture inside his head that only he could see.

"God, I miss Jackie," he said in a voice so small it seemed to be coming from somebody else. "God, how I really do wish they were here."

But they were. They were all there at Shea. No. 42 was alive again last night at Shea, the closest thing to Ebbets Field we could find. The young ones could see No. 42 on the big screens. The lucky ones, the lucky old men like Joe Black, only had to close their eyes.

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