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04/15/11 11:32 PM ET

MLB family honors Jackie Robinson

Rangers skipper Ron Washington had his eyes fixated on MLB Network's Jackie Robinson piece while in his office at Yankee Stadium on Friday afternoon. At that point, he saw an old speech by Robinson, who talked about how nice it would be to see an African-American in the coaches' box.

"I yelled, 'Well we in the dugout now!' said Washington, one of two African-American managers -- along with the Reds' Dusty Baker -- and among several black coaches in the game since Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

"We've come a long way."

Indeed, Major League Baseball has come a long way over the last 64 seasons.

And every year on April 15, it remembers why.

"I owe everything I have to Jackie Robinson," Angels right fielder Torii Hunter said. "If he didn't have the strength to go through what he did, and just walked away, who knows what would have happened? He was a great man, not only for what he did for baseball, but for society in breaking down so many barriers."

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Because he broke down so many of them, MLB retired Robinson's number league-wide in 1997, then named every April 15 Jackie Robinson Day in 2004, then -- piggy-backing off an idea by Ken Griffey Jr. -- helped mark the occasion by allowing every player to wear No. 42 in 2007.

All over baseball -- from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles -- No. 42 was donned proudly by every player, manager and coach on this Friday.

"Just to have the opportunity to tell my kids one day that I wore Jackie Robinson's number for at least one day every season," Twins center fielder Denard Span said, "it's a great thing for me."

"It feels unbelievable to wear his number," Giants shortstop Miguel Tejada added. "It makes you feel like you're part of him. I never got to see him play, but the way everyone talks about Jackie Robinson is magnificent. It's a great feeling for every player because of the way he played the game and what he did for the game."

After each game, one No. 42 jersey was signed by every player on every club so it could be auctioned on MLB.com, with proceeds going to the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

When Robinson's daughter, Sharon Robinson, found out MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was going to retire her father's number 14 years ago, she didn't know what to expect. Then she heard the roar from a Shea Stadium crowd upon his announcement and received further proof of just how special Jackie was.

His prestige has only grown since then.

"That speaks volumes," Sharon said, "[about] how far the players have come in terms of understanding the legacy and what an important contribution he made to society."

Friday was what Sharon called "a wonderful work day," as she made a stop at a Brooklyn middle school to talk about Jackie, appeared at a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (R.B.I.) clinic in Newark, N.J., checked in at the MLB Fan Cave, then was introduced at Yankee Stadium along with her mother and Robinson's widow, Rachel.

There, she saw Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano -- who was named after the Hall of Famer and for some reason always plays well on April 15.

She saw Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson -- one of the finest African-American players in baseball, and someone who knows his Robinson history as well as anyone.

And she saw Yankees closer Mariano Rivera -- the only man who still wears No. 42 regularly.

"It's a privilege, an honor to wear No. 42," Rivera said. "Especially because of what Jackie represents for us."

For this one day, Rivera wasn't alone.

Every team -- except the Braves and Mets, who were rained out in Atlanta -- celebrated Robinson's impact with special guests, video tributes and unique festivities in the eighth annual Jackie Robinson Day.

A life-sized, hand-carved wood statue of Robinson was on display in Ashburn Alley in Philadelphia; White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was given the Chairman's Award by the Jackie Robinson Foundation; the Astros had former Negro League and Major League star Monte Irvin on hand; and the Royals presented Frank White with the Negro League Baseball Museum's Jackie Robinson Legacy Award for lifetime achievement.

"He really just set the stage for guys, that if you had a dream and you were a minority, follow that dream," Kansas City's former second baseman said about Robinson. "One of the main things about him, and he said it himself, is [former Dodgers executive] Branch Rickey said he wanted to find somebody that wouldn't fight against prejudice and so forth, and Jackie was saying, 'I had a problem figuring out why he didn't want me to fight.'"

Rickey didn't want him to fight because that's the only way this crazy experiment would work.

Sharon touched on that while speaking with kids at John Wilson Middle School on Friday morning, pointing to an inaugural meeting between the two, when Rickey yelled racial slurs at Jackie to see how he would react on the field as the only black player.

Robinson wasn't afraid to fight, but the only way to successfully serve as a bridge to so many historic African-American players was to sit on his hands and take the discrimination, hatred and abuse.

He withstood plenty of it.

"What he went through," Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said, "I don't think a lot of us today could deal with what he dealt with."

"Jackie paved the way with his sweat, his blood, his tears, all the adversity he had to face in a trying time in U.S. history, and it's amazing that he was able to gather the strength to deal with all the hatred that the world showed, even Major League Baseball," Blue Jays outfielder Rajai Davis added. "I can only imagine how difficult it was, but yet he kept persevering."

Robinson, born in Georgia and raised in California, played for the Negro Leagues' Kansas City Monarchs before spending all 10 of his eventual Hall of Fame seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. He won baseball's first Rookie of the Year Award, was named Most Valuable Player in 1949, and went on to compile a .311 batting average, 1,518 hits and 197 stolen bases.

Without him, there is no Hank Aaron or Willie Mays or Ryan Howard -- or maybe even Roberto Clemente or Ichiro Suzuki.

"We've come a long way," Reinsdorf said. "Baseball is at the point where the social barriers have been knocked down. I don't think there's a general manager in baseball who makes a decision on a player other than, 'Is this the best guy I can have on my team?' We've come definitely beyond where society in general is. Sports really is equal opportunity."

MLB is more diverse than ever these days, but the percentage of African-American players in the Majors has declined in recent years. It reportedly stood in the 20s during the 1970s. But in 2010, that percentage was 9.1, and it hasn't gone any higher than 15 percent since 1997, according to the University of Central Florida's Racial and Gender Report Card.

To try to combat that, the league has implemented R.B.I. and the Urban Youth Academies, and it has celebrated African-American history with the Civil Rights Game -- scheduled to be played in Atlanta on May 15, between the Phillies and Braves -- and Jackie Robinson Day.

Baseball is trying to get more blacks in the game, but realizes it'll be a while before change is noticeable.

Thanks to Robinson, though, that opportunity for African-Americans -- and anyone who wasn't born in the U.S., really -- exists in abundance.

"He touched lives off the field," Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said. "Baseball was an outlet for him to be able to do that, and he had some special talent to go through what he did and still set an example for others. You can't replace it."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. Several MLB.com reporters contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.