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An oral history of the night baseball stopped to retire No. 42 forever

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When No. 42 was retired across baseball (2:29)

Bud Selig and MLB took the unprecedented step of retiring the No. 42 jersey on April 15, 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game in the majors. (2:29)

Twenty years ago, a baseball game froze in time. And out onto the lush green grass of Shea Stadium, in the middle of the fifth inning, walked three people.

One was Rachel Robinson, wife of the late, great Jackie Robinson. One was the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig. The third? It was merely the president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.

They were there to do something that had never been done before: retire a number, Jackie Robinson's 42, across an entire sport. And to do their part to ensure that the power of Robinson's major league debut, 50 years earlier to the day, would keep resonating through history.

This is the story of that night, April 15, 1997 -- and its aftermath -- through the eyes of the men and women who lived it.

The lightning bolt

BUD SELIG (commissioner for 22 years, now commissioner emeritus, making his stunning announcement to the crowd that night): Major League Baseball is taking the unprecedented step of retiring uniform No. 42 in perpetuity. ... No. 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages.

LEN COLEMAN (then the National League president, later the chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation for 18 years): I actually got put in charge of orchestrating the festivities for the 15th, and I was struggling in thinking about what we were going to do to capture the moment ... that would be totally distinctive, that would separate Jackie from every other ballplayer and capture the significance of his accomplishment. I was driving on the Garden State Parkway, and it was like a lightning bolt hit: "Retire his number from the whole game." I thought about it as I was driving, and I said, "That's it. I'm going to go to Bud and say: 'Let's retire the number.'"

SELIG: You know, there's always pressure on [retiring] numbers. And you've got to be so careful, and I really mean that. But this one, to me, there was just no question about it. This Jackie Robinson thing was really special, and so it just appealed to me greatly. ... In the [college] course I teach -- which is "Baseball in American History, 1945 to the present" -- I start with Jackie Robinson. He's my first lecture every September. I really believe [his first game] was the most powerful and important moment in baseball history.

COLEMAN: When Bud agreed to retire the number, there were only a few of us who knew about it. That's one time we actually kept a secret. At the time, secrets lasted about two seconds in baseball. But that one held.

SHARON ROBINSON (Jackie's daughter, now MLB's educational consultant and the manager of Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life): Len called us first and gave us the heads-up that this was going to happen, just a few days in advance. And my mom and I were like, "Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing?" What about Mo Vaughn? What about all the players that we knew at the time were wearing No. 42? Some of them were wearing it to honor my dad. ... So when they walked out on that field, I remember sort of holding my breath, because we had anxiety over how the retirement of the No. 42 would be received. We weren't sure how the fans were going to take it. But when Bud announced it, they jumped out of their seats. We just couldn't believe it. The fans jumped out of their seats and stood up and cheered. So we knew it was the right decision.

SELIG (to the crowd that night): Throughout its long history, Major League Baseball has operated under the premise that no single person is bigger than the game -- no single person other than Jackie Robinson.

CLAIRE SMITH (who covered the ceremony for The New York Times): When he announced it, there was a collective gasp in the stadium, and around baseball. I was stunned. Obviously, it had never been done before in Major League Baseball to universally retire one number. And in the four major sports, it had not been done. ... Jackie Robinson is my hero. He's why I write. And that was the most moving thing I'd ever seen on a baseball field.

And the game stopped

PA announcement following the top of the fifth inning that night: Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States, Rachel Robinson and Bud Selig.

BERNARD GILKEY (former New York Mets outfielder): The whole country was watching. And time just stopped in the middle of the baseball game. ... You'll never see it again.

GENE ORZA (former COO of the players' association): I approached [former commissioner] Peter Ueberroth in 1986 about celebrating the 40th anniversary [of Robinson's debut]. My idea was to stop all play on April 15 of 1987 and play only one game. And it would be the Dodgers against the Braves because [Robinson's] first game was played against the Boston Braves. And we would invite the president, who was Ronald Reagan, and Tip O'Neill and anybody else. He said he would talk about it with the clubs. He got back to me and said there wasn't much enthusiasm for stopping play in the middle of a game. ... Then, in 1995, when Cal Ripken made his 2,131st official game appearance [in a row], that took place, obviously, after 4½ innings -- and they stopped the game in the middle of the game. So now they couldn't tell me any longer that you can't interrupt play. So I renewed the request. I said, "In '97, we should do something like have the president of the United States come out to second base, stand on it and give a speech."

COLEMAN: I remember at the time, President Clinton had injured his [knee]. But I remember he went right out and he addressed the crowd. It was just a totally dramatic moment.

PRESIDENT CLINTON (to the crowd that night): It is hard to believe that it was 50 years ago at Ebbets Field that a 28-year-old rookie changed the face of baseball and the face of America forever. Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run that day. And we've all been trying to catch up ever since.

BRANCH B. RICKEY (president of the Pacific Coast League and grandson of Branch Rickey, who signed Robinson): You know, I don't remember as much of the specifics [of the ceremony] as I remember the aura and the emotion of the fact that this was a celebration that was much larger than the normal old, "Here we are awarding a certificate to so and so for the accomplishment of such and such." ... This man, and what he represented and portrayed, is a hero, but not of athletic proportion. He transcends anything athletic. We weren't celebrating an athletic event on that night. We were celebrating in an athletic stadium.

COLEMAN: For Jackie and what he did for all of America in integrating America's pastime, it just elevated him to another level. And I felt particularly pleased because his relationship with Rachel was a total partnership. Rachel was a force in her own right. So she was standing right there, and I remember that smile on her face.

SHARON ROBINSON: I think part of why he remembers that smile so well is that my mom often kind of protects her emotions. But when President Clinton arrived, and the three of them went out, it was her moment, as well as a moment for my dad.

LANCE JOHNSON (former Mets outfielder, who drove in the first two runs minutes after the ceremony ended and the game resumed): There was an aura. A presence. Kind of like a godly presence. A special feeling. You just don't walk around with that feeling all the time. ... Emotionally, it was like this: Remember when Jose Fernandez died and then [Dee Gordon] came up and hit the home run, and he never hit home runs? His heart and his soul was into that game because he was playing for Fernandez. I know it's not the same thing, but it was like that. I put my everything into that historical moment. It was emotional like that.

More than just a number

RACHEL ROBINSON (on the field that night): This anniversary has given us an opportunity as a nation to celebrate together the triumphs of the past and the social progress that has occurred. It has also given us an opportunity to reassess the challenges of the present.

COLEMAN: I look at that No. 42 every time I walk into a ballpark. What it signifies to me is, I'm a kid of the civil rights movement. So I lived through all of that. So in a way, when I look at that number, it takes me back. And it symbolizes what we've come through as a country, thanks to people like Jackie. And it also symbolizes hope for the future.

SHARON ROBINSON: I remember the years I used to travel. ... I just remember sitting in the stands, listening to people -- they didn't know who I was -- and hearing them talk about No. 42: Why is it up there? Why is it a different color? I'd hear them talking to their children, sharing the experience. And I remember not saying anything, just because I wanted to hear people's reaction to it. It made me feel so good that it opened up discussion, because that's what you really want. It's symbolic of social change. And it's not just a moment. It's an ongoing change. It's a reflection on history, and how the past informs the present. And what does this tell us about the future? And what lessons can we learn that can be carried forward?

SELIG: I really believe that on April 15, 1997, we really changed the culture. So with that number retired now and [every player wearing it] every April 15, it's important, because life is funny. People forget. They're there. They're gone. They forget. That may be why the culture change was the most meaningful thing. Now every player ... should never forget what Jackie Robinson did and what Branch Rickey did.

FRED CLAIRE (then the Los Angeles Dodgers' GM): The key thing for baseball, in 1997 and now -- even more so now -- is the continuation of Jackie's message. It was not enough then, and it's not enough now to simply be about a number.

'We can do better'

PRESIDENT CLINTON (on the field that night): I can't help thinking that if Jackie Robinson were here with us tonight, he would say that we have done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we can do better.

GILKEY: The small percentage of African-American players in the major leagues now bewilders me. I mean, 8 percent?

JOHNSON: I don't think Jackie would be happy with the numbers of blacks that are playing in baseball. He'd be disappointed.

SMITH: I think that it would probably have broken Jackie's heart that there was not a lot of proactive recruiting and selling of the sport done by the folks that picked up the glove and supposedly picked up his legacy. ... When it became obvious that these numbers were dwindling, where was baseball's LeBron James? We probably had a lot of Michael Jordans who were just making a lot of money, but they were selling their brand. They weren't selling their own game.

CLAIRE: In 1972, it wasn't enough for Jackie just to throw out the first ball of the World Series. He wanted to speak because he wanted to continue the message. And what resonates with me is that when you go through Jackie's words, they are so powerful. And they need to be carried on within baseball and within society. And the one that resonates most is this quote: "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

PRESIDENT CLINTON (that night): Today, I think we should remember that Jackie Robinson's legacy did not end with baseball. For afterward, he spent the rest of his life trying to open other doors and keep them open for all kinds of people.

SMITH: When the president is out there and he's talking about Jackie Robinson and equality and the occasion being something bigger than baseball, you're hanging on every word. And you know you're witnessing something that in the moment is bigger than anything you've probably ever seen. And now, 20 years later, it's kind of a melancholy feeling, knowing that it probably was in the moment. And there's a little letdown, knowing that in 2017, not a lot has changed.

CLAIRE: It's so disappointing to me, because when you see that [8 percent] figure -- and this gets right to the heart of what Jackie was trying to say -- of young blacks not entering the game and not having the opportunities in the game; we have so much to do. There's an obligation here that goes so far beyond a salute to Jackie Robinson one day a year.

SHARON ROBINSON: I think [that 8 percent] really reflects once again on the fact that struggle is ongoing. All struggle is ongoing. And that's what my dad told me when I was 13: "You don't change something and everything's fine. You have to stay on it and be vigilant and conscious and be willing to stand up for what you believe in -- for the rest of your life."