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The Cruelest Cut Of All

April 16, 2020

It was hard when Spring Training was cancelled.

It was disappointing when Opening Day was postponed.

But, yesterday was the hardest day so far of despondant baseball fans.

April 15 is a special day in baseball. It’s a day where past meets present, and black meets white in a way that is completely unique in sports.

Baseball is the oldest sports league in the United States. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the youngest of the “big four.” It was was organized in 1946. Basketball, as a sport had its start with James Naismith and a peach basket that he put up in 1891.

The National Football League (NFL) was founded in 1920. It was the brainchild of a man named Walter Camp, although the first game was played on November 6, 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers.

Hockey, as a sport, has the longest history. It got it’s origins in Nova Scotia in the early 1800s. Although it was most likely played prior to that in England. (In 1796 on the frozen Thames, no less.) The first indoor organized game was March 3, 1875. The person most responsible for modern hockey is James Creighton. If you take the skates away, “hockey” had been played as far back as four thousand years ago in ancient Egypt. The National Hockey League (NHL) was founded in 1917.

Baseball, cannot trace it’s roots back nearly as far back as hockey. Popular myth credits Abner Doubleday with inventing the game in the summer of 1839 at Cooperstown, New York. That’s not true. It’s a story that was made up in 1907 to establish the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. It worked.

Early versions of the game were played as far back as the 1700s. It was based on two English games, rounders and cricket. The first baseball club was formed in New York City in September 1845. A man named Joy Cartwright wrote down the first rule book. Many of his rules still exit in today’s game; a diamond shaped field (that’s actual a square), foul lines, three strikes. Oh, and Cartwright said no more getting a runner out by throwing the ball at him.

Major League Baseball (MLB) was founded in 1903. The league would grow and shrink and later combine with the upstart leagues. And also eventually split on color lines. The Negro Leagues wer formed in 1920. One league disbanded in 1948, the other continued into the 1950’s.

The Negro Leagues folded because they were no longer needed. And the day they started to become irrelevant was Opening Day, April 15, 1946.

Branch Ricky was the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. His team and all other teams were made up of only white players. Ricky set out to change that in 1946. And as important as Ricky’s contribution was, it pales next to the contribution of their first baseman, a man named Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson was a black man. The first black man to play in the major leagues in decades. The leagues weren’t always segregated. In fact, there was never actually an official rule barring black players. It was just “an understanding.”

And that changed April 15, 1946.

Jackie was the first. He was the great experiment. And it was a result of his outstanding play, and his amazing behavior on and off the field, that laid the groundwork for the players who came after him.

My favorite team is the Seattle Mariners. And the most famous Mariners player in the history of the franchise is Ken Griffey Junior. Griffey is a black man. He’s the son of a professional baseball player. (Not surprisingly named Ken Griffey Senior.) He grew up playing in the dugout of major league ballparks.

On April 15, 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s first game in a Major League uniform, Griffey took the field wearing Robinson’s 42 instead of his own number 24. That was also the day the number was officially retired throughout all of baseball. An unprecedented honor.

Ten years later, Griffey again wanted to honor the man who had paved the way for all black players after him. Because the number was retired, he had to ask for special permission. He asked both Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball and Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow.

Selig liked the idea and encouraged other teams to adopt the tribute. And then, two years later, on April 15, 2009, by order of the commissioner’s office, all players, managers and coaches wore 42. And that’s now one of the coolest traditions in sports. Every year on Jackie Robinson day, April 15, every team and every player in baseball dons number 42.

It’s a tribute that is manifest without words. Every picture of a game, every television broadcast, every news clip shows players and managers wearing the same number. A number so special that no one in baseball gets to ever wear it again. Except for the day when everyone does.

Baseball will eventually restart. We’ll have Opening Day 2020 at some point. But, at least for this year, we will not get to have Jackie Robinson day.

And that is the cruelest cut of all.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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