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04/15/10 8:34 PM ET

Bodley: No measuring Robinson's impact

Breaking the color barrier was much bigger than baseball

PHILADELPHIA -- You would almost have to be living under a large rock not to know that Thursday was Jackie Robinson Day.

If you were in a big league ballpark there was no guessing what number Jackie wore. All uniformed personnel in the Major Leagues wore No. 42 on Thursday.

Yes, Jackie Robinson Day -- April 15 -- has become an enormous day of tribute to the man who broke baseball's rigid color barrier in 1947, when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers that Opening Day at Ebbets Field.

It wasn't always this way. Oh, there were token mentions here and there about the impact Robinson had on baseball and the civil rights movement in this country. That was about it.

In 1997, as the 50th anniversary of Robinson's first game approached, Major League Baseball searched for a way to fittingly honor one of the most important dates and players in its history.

The celebration was planned for Shea Stadium, President Clinton would be on hand and ...

National League president Len Coleman suggested Jackie's No. 42 be retired throughout the Majors. From that day forward no player would be issued No. 42. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera, who had the number before 1997, is the only active player wearing it. There is no better reminder for baseball fans.

Huge No. 42s are displayed in a conspicuous location in every park.

Maybe it's time for this day to become even more important on the national calendar.

As the Washington Nationals were taking advantage of an implosion of the Phillies' bullpen for a 7-5 victory Thursday afternoon, I thought back to that night in 1997 at Shea Stadium.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with Clinton in a quiet corner of the stadium to talk about Robinson and what his accomplishments meant 50 years later, not only for African-Americans, but all of our society.

I mentioned to Clinton how presidents congratulate athletes and others on great achievements. What would he have said to Jackie Robinson?

"First of all, I would have thanked him, because I think even then people knew this was something big -- even people who didn't fully understand the implications of it," Clinton told me. "Secondly, I would have commented not simply on his baseball skills, but also on the character, the dignity, the determination, the willingness to endure the rejections -- all the things the blacks went through. It took more than athletic skills to get where he was."

Clinton kept talking about how what Robinson did was more than a historical moment for baseball.

"This was earth-shattering," he said. "If you look at it in terms not only for what it did for baseball and other athletics, but how it was a seminal point in the way people felt about black Americans, it was so important. It also led to overall diversity in baseball."

Clinton added something during our chat I believe had a lot to do with the establishment of Jackie Robinson Day.

Now, I think it should become an even more significant recognition.

"This is an important night for America," he said. "When Jackie Robinson broke into baseball it was a milestone. It was a milestone for sports, but also a milestone in the 50-year effort that really began at the end of World War II to change America's attitudes on the question of race. It was not long after that President Truman signed an order to desegregate the military.

"Soon after that the first African-American player entered pro basketball -- a whole series of things happened and they were triggered by Jackie Robinson."

Flash forward to Thursday: For many of the Nationals and Phillies, wearing No. 42 was more meaningful than just putting on a different number.

"Jackie Robinson means everything to me," said Washington center fielder Nyjer Morgan. "I just wish I could create a time machine and go back in time just to see everything he dealt with.

"I wouldn't be playing if this guy didn't break barriers. It's a special day as an African-American just to play in this game today. He paved the way for guys like me, Ryan Howard, Ian Desmond -- all of us."

Washington outfielder Willie Harris has been in the Major Leagues since 2001. He says as he matures "I understand more about the things Jackie Robinson went through to pave the way for myself and for all the minorities in the game. Jackie paved the way for all of us."

He wonders how difficult it was for Robinson.

"I can only imagine all the things he may have gone through," he said. "He just kept right on pushing through it. That's kind of the way I am. No matter what the circumstances are, I just keep pushing. And I think a lot of it has to do with him."

In baseball, Jackie Robinson Day is more than a reminder of what No. 42 stands for.

As Commissioner Bud Selig says, "baseball's proudest moment was when Jackie took the field in 1947."

The Commissioner is correct -- to a degree.

But that moment on April 15, 1947, was larger than baseball.

It should be treated that way.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.