For many Americans, April 15th is just Tax Day. But in Major League Baseball, April 15th is a day for remembering an American hero who inspired people across the nation to fight hard for their dreams, and paved the way for us to achieve our own.
Jackie Robinson was a father, a husband, a baseball player, a civil rights leader and a role model. When I reflect on what Jackie Robinson has given me – an African-American playing the game I love, surrounded by so many different people who don’t look like me – I feel so much gratitude and respect.
Before Jackie broke the baseball color barrier, the game was very segregated. Whites played with and against Whites in the majors. and people of color (including Latino players) who weren’t allowed in the White Major Leagues played separately in their own leagues. Occasionally throughout the year, White teams would play non-White teams – but the teams stayed segregated and so did the bleachers where fans sat.
Fast forward to April 15, 2017 and the team I play for – the New York Mets – has both coaches and players who are Black, White and Latino. The team we are playing against – the Miami Marlins – also looks like a melting pot. And this is all because of what Jackie was able to do on April 15, 1947.
As the first African-American to attempt a career in the major leagues, Jackie received taunts, hate letters, even death threats. He was under the national spotlight, and just as many people wanted him to fail and those who wanted him to succeed. I often ask myself if I could have done what he did – played under that much pressure – and I don’t think I could have. I imagine the current difficulty of playing a professional sport with all eyes on you, and a team and fans you don’t want to let down. Then I think of Jackie Robinson doing all of that with his own team rooting against him, on top of most of the baseball fans in the stands. This game is hard enough without all of that. But Jackie made it work.
He did what he does best, despite all of the circumstances. He embraced his role as a great athlete, a runner, a fielder, a hitter, and a humanitarian. That year, Jackie won the Rookie of the Year award and helped his team become the first interracial team to play in the World Series. Despite everyone who wanted him to fail, he just continued overcoming obstacles to succeed
Jackie’s success paved the way for more players of color to enter the league the next year, and even more the year after that, and diversity in the league continued to grow. Currently MLB has players from 19 different countries and about 30% of the players were born outside of the United States. I’ve had the good fortune of playing with players from more than 10 countries throughout my career. And I think that’s just such a cool thing. The world is a huge place with so many different people, and Jackie helped bring many of them together to enjoy this game we all love together.
So on this day – April 15, 2017 – we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, and pay tribute to everything he accomplished and everything he stood for. All the MLB coaches and players, including myself, get the privilege to wear Jackie’s number, #42, the only number ever to be retired by all 30 teams. I get to wear a pair of custom Jackie Robinson cleats by New Balance. And I wear my socks up high, not just today but every day of the season, to honor the legacy of my personal hero. Most importantly though, I get to hit the field with an amazingly talented and diverse group of individuals, to play a game I love in front of an equally diverse crowd of fans, and all because Jackie Robinson had the courage to go first.
Curtis Granderson is founder of The Grandkids Foundation, which encourages education, physical fitness and nutrition among youth. Click here to learn more.