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'Emotional day' for Selig
04/15/2004 10:39 PM ET
NEW YORK -- It could very well be part of Commissioner Bud Selig's lasting legacy, this annual Jackie Robinson Day, this national celebration of Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's longstanding color line on April 15, 1947.

"I'll let other people be the judge of that," Selig said as he came off the field at Shea Stadium after ceremonies on Thursday night. "But I'm very proud."

Selig, nearing his 70th birthday in July, was quivering as much from raw emotions as he was from the biting wind. Rachel Robinson, a spry 82, had just addressed a Major League crowd and a big league press corps with grace and eloquence. On a night honoring her late husband, Mrs. Robinson did the talking and stole the show and the Commissioner was only too happy to step aside.

"It was a very emotional day for me, just for the fact of having lived through all that and now being able to participate," Selig said. "To be standing there next to Rachel Robinson... I feel very privileged."

Go back 57 years to when the would-be Commissioner was a 13-year-old from Milwaukee. Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves at Ebbetts Field in nearby Flatbush, a 5-3 Dodgers' victory to begin a season that ended with a National League pennant.

Jackie Robinson Day
Jackie Robinson Day
April 15, 2004
• Ceremony at Shea Stadium:
56K | 350K
• Commissioner Selig's comments: 56K | 350K
•'s Billy Sample at Shea: 56K | 350K
• Presentation at Jackie Robinson Field: 56K | 350K
• looks at his life and impact: 56K | 350K

On May 18, 1947, the Dodgers took the train to Chicago to play at Wrigley Field. Selig and his best friend, Herb Kohl, now a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin and owner of the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks, attended the game to see the phenomenal 26-year-old, who would dodge spikes and racial epithets to be named the National League's very first Rookie of the Year.

"We sat in the upper deck and we were the only white fans up there," Selig recalled. "There was so much electricity and drama."

On the return trip home, the two tried to answer the question that haunts Selig to this day:

"Why did it take so long?"

As Commissioner, Selig has tried to put that into perspective and to move forward.

"(Then Dodgers president) Branch Rickey was a very courageous man," Selig said. "But when you think about it, what he did pre-dated the Civil Rights movement by years."

What Rickey did was turn the Dodgers into a powerhouse -- following Robinson while some of the other 15 Major League clubs lingered, was Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and Joe Black, just to name the top African American players who came through Brooklyn. With that core, the Dodgers won pennants in 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956, and the World Series in 1955.

Ultimately, the coming of Robinson, who died in 1972 at the age of 53, led the way to the accomplishments of Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Hall of Famers, all of them. "And you can go on and on and on," Selig said.

"It took this extraordinary man, with the aid of his wife and family, to go through, I guess what we'll never really know," he said. "He set the path for changes not only in sports, but in society. He didn't fail, although most people wanted him to fail, and so we celebrate all this as we should.

"Why do we celebrate? Because no generation should ever forget what Jackie Robinson did. So that every young player not only knows who Jackie Robinson is, but understands what Jackie did for him. All the great players who followed, they came because Jackie Robinson not only succeeded, but succeeded in a way that paved the way for others."

Seven years ago, Selig decreed Robinson's No. 42 retired throughout baseball. No one else has had that honor -- not Babe Ruth, not Mays, not Selig's beloved Aaron, who became the Commissioner's favorite player as a young adult after the Braves left Boston for Milwaukee.

On Thursday, Robinson's No. 42 was everywhere -- on placards, lapel pins and burned into memory. It was there Thursday afternoon when Selig helped dedicate pristinely refurbished Jackie Robinson Field on the campus of Forest Hills High School. That ceremony included Major League Baseball donating $1 million to Take the Field, a public-private partnership that is rebuilding the athletic facilities of New York City public schools.

It was there in multiples on the Shea Stadium field during the ceremonies prior to the game between the Mets, and yes, the Braves, now hailing from Atlanta.

"It's one of those rare moments in life that you're grateful to be part of an institution, which is far from perfect, but has served as a pathfinder and inspiration for a lot of things that have transpired since (Robinson broke in)," Selig said.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.