This Date in Baseball: Why We Should Honor Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson

Yankees started uniform numbers, but wore #42 for Jackie Robinson on Sunday.
Yankees started uniform numbers, but wore #42 for Jackie Robinson on Sunday.Nick Laham/Getty Images
Steven GoldmanMLB Lead BloggerApril 16, 2012

On April 16, 1929, the Yankees became the first team to permanently put numbers on the back of their uniforms. The initial numbers were determined by the batting order; this is why Babe Ruth was No. 3 three and Lou Gehrig was No. 4.

The numbers didn't change if the batting order did. When Ruth got hurt in June and Gehrig temporarily moved up in the batting order, he was still no. 4. Parenthetically, Bob Meusel was out at the same time Ruth was, so Miller Huggins batted Cedric Durst cleanup, which might be why it took until 1964 for Huggins to get into the Hall. When you look at Huggins and see tactics that remind you of Jerry Manuel, you really have to reevaluate.

To be fair to Huggins, he wasn't at his best that year and would die of an infection that September. Perhaps he was too addled to recognize that second baseman Tony Lazzeri or rookie Bill Dickey could have been moved up instead of a .244/.294/.351-hitting utility man.

As I write these words, I am watching the last game of Jackie Robinson Day, a celebration of baseball's embracing true American values of equality, in which all players wear No. 42.

It is good to say that we are all Jackie Robinson, or that we all owe Jackie Robinson something, but as one who is sometimes bad with faces and body types, I do miss the actual numbers. Still, we owe Robinson a little inconvenience given what he went through—it’s like fasting on a religious holiday

There should be a tribute to Branch Rickey somewhere on the calendar as well. He was the man who had the vision to force integration in the face of considerable opposition from his fellow owners. Though his motivation wasn’t completely pure (he wanted a competitive advantage for the Dodgers by jumping out ahead on African-American talent), he still put his career, and perhaps even his life, at risk by advancing the cause of equality. He wasn’t the one on the field, but he should get at least a hat tip once a year.

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