The blog for Mets fans
who like to read

ABOUT US

Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

Got something to say? Leave a comment, or email us at faithandfear@gmail.com.

Need our RSS feed? It's here.

Visit our Facebook page, or drop by the personal pages for Greg and Jason.

Or follow us on Twitter: Here's Greg, and here's Jason.

Bigger Than The Game

When their season began, they were nobody. When it ended, they were somebody. If it’s the first Friday of the month, then we’re remembering them in this special 1997 Mets edition of Flashback Friday.

Ten years, seven Fridays. This is one of them.

If these Julio Franco times, when ballplayer age is such an elastic yardstick, could be transported back to 1962, it’s not inconceivable that the Mets would have selected Jackie Robinson in the expansion draft. Robinson turned 43 that January, more than five years younger than Franco is now. Had health and choice permitted him to have continued playing a theoretical sixth season beyond his actual retirement, he was exactly who the Mets would have drafted. He was an old Dodger. We already know Walter O’Malley wouldn’t have hung onto him. Hell, Walter O’Malley traded him to the Giants after the 1956 season for Dick Littlefield. Robinson quit the game rather than join his archrivals. He had other opportunities outside baseball and 38 was very old then. Very old for baseball, very old for someone who had lived as much of a life as Robinson had.

Really, it’s a ludicrous hypothetical. Jackie Robinson wasn’t about to become a Met in 1962. He would have to wait 35 years for that honor.

April 15 marks 10 years since the night Jackie Robinson’s 42 went up on the left field wall at Shea Stadium. It went out of circulation just about everywhere that night, an overwhelming honor for a single player, one deemed appropriate by Commissioner Bud Selig who told a sellout crowd that “no single person is bigger than the game of baseball…no one except for Jackie Robinson.” With that, the number was retired by the Mets, by the Rockies, by the Orioles, by franchises whose players shunned and mocked and harassed and spiked the man of the hour, by everybody. It was a bold and grand gesture by a commissioner not especially noted for effective leadership, an unprecedented tribute to the man who changed baseball forever exactly 50 years earlier.

I was at Shea for the occasion. I had no intention of missing it, no matter how cold it was going to be. It was a great night even if one can, to this day, sift through and quibble with the decision Selig made.

• Was baseball guilt-tripping all over itself on that cold (very cold, extremely cold) night in 1997, attempting with one mighty swing to compensate for all it got dead wrong before 1947, all it was still getting wrong by 1987 when the Al Campanis “necessities” debacle exploded all over Nightline?

Probably to some extent, but what’s the point of acknowledging a misdeed if you’re not going to go all out in correcting it? Jackie Robinson absolutely “changed the face of baseball and America” on April 15, 1947, as President Bill Clinton, the first chief executive to visit Shea while in office, said in the on-field ceremonies. Baseball can’t undo its pre-1947 segregationist past, but it can shine a light on all that was done to move forward in the hope that it — and America — would keep moving forward. Vince Coleman infamously professed ignorance regarding Robinson’s life story. With 42 in plain sight everywhere and with the sport invoking his name, his number and his legacy every April 15 since, no ballplayer of any color would ever again be able to get far in his chosen profession unaware of the one person who did more than any other to shape its contours. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that you know a little bit about the field in which you’ve opted to pursue a career for yourself.

The fans would learn, too. We can always stand to learn a little more about our game.

• If Jackie Robinson rated his number’s retirement, what about Babe Ruth’s 3 for the man who saved and/or popularized baseball? What about Roberto Clemente, whose 21 represents humanity at its pinnacle and engenders a legacy all its own?

What about them? 3 is retired by the Yankees, 21 by the Pirates. But weren’t they bigger than the game, too? On one level, sure. Ruth (despite the team for whom he played and the house he allegedly built) deserves to be remembered as the biggest star baseball ever knew and will ever know. But there were ballplayers before him. He pulled the sport out of the shadow of doubt cast by the Black Sox scandal, but chances were there’d be ballplayers after him.

Clemente died one of the most noble civilian deaths imaginable, rushing relief supplies to Nicaragua after that country’s devastating 1972 earthquake. That alone is worthy of memorial — such as that embodied by the Roberto Clemente Award presented every October to the Major Leaguer who combines outstanding play on the field with devoted work in the community, the most recent recipient of which was our own Carlos Delgado (who wears 21). Clemente was one of the first Latin players in the big leagues, the first superstar among them. He certainly blazed trails, he certainly suffered indignities on account of his heritage…like Robinson — and after Robinson. Chronologically speaking, Jackie carved the first and most sustained path for the times in which we would come to live. In that sense, that makes Robinson bigger than Ruth, bigger than Clemente, bigger than everybody, bigger than the game.

• If 42 means so much, why take it out of circulation?

This is the toughest question to answer as a baseball fan. For that one Arctic night in 1997, you couldn’t have asked for a better way to focus the world’s attention on Robinson’s deeds and meaning. Remember that the number-retirement was a surprise. We knew the commissioner and the president and Rachel Robinson would be at Shea for what was officially billed as the Jackie Robinson 50th Anniversary Celebration (there were rumors that the newly green-jacketed Tiger Woods would fly in to represent the next generation, but he declined the last-minute invite). There were commemorative “Breaking Barriers” patches on everybody’s uniform sleeves that year. There were special sections in all the papers. The Interboro Parkway became the Jackie Robinson Parkway that week. Anheuser-Busch replaced its usual Budweiser ad on the scoreboard with one praising the all-time Dodger (which made the well-intentioned referral to his having been a “giant” rather unfortunate; Rob Emproto rolled his eyes and suggested to me they just get it over with and “call him a Giant Yankee”). But until Selig made his remarks about Jackie Robinson being bigger than the game and then directed our gaze toward left field, we didn’t know 42 was being removed from active duty.

We discuss retired numbers the way other cultures ponder sainthood. The Hall of Fame may be understood as the ultimate baseball honor, but Cooperstown is out of our hands. The retirement of a player’s number is something closer to our hearts and thus somehow more sacred. Our team can do something about it. We understand the soul of our ballclub and our ballplayers. We know damn well the level of their celestial significance in our universe and we tell each other all the time. We use as our currency in this discourse the uniform number. How great, how important, how eternal was this guy to us? Or that guy? He was so great, so important, so eternal, that you just have to retire his number. Nobody who decides these matters asks us to weigh in but we do. It’s the one vote to which we’re sure we’re all entitled.

With 42 retired, that vote was taken away. No, Ron Taylor, Ron Hodges and Roger McDowell weren’t candidates to join Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges and Tom Seaver in the Met numerical pantheon, but now neither would be Butch Huskey, who had worn 42 since 1995 as his own salute to Robinson. Huskey was wearing 42 when the game started that night. Here after five innings, as the ceremonies proceeded (only Jackie Robinson was big enough to interrupt at length a game in progress), he and we were told his number was done.

Well, not exactly. Selig said 42 could stay on the backs of those who already had it, grandfathered in for those were paying personal tribute to Robinson. That described mainly Mo Vaughn of the Red Sox and Butch Huskey of the Mets. (The ruling also left 42 undisturbed on the back of the Yankees’ new closer Mariano Rivera.) Huskey would wear 42 through 1998 until he was traded to Seattle, and that was assumed to be it among 42ish Mets. But it was born again when Vaughn became a Met in 2002 but finished up with him the next year (though Bob Murphy was presented with a framed Mets 42 jersey to represent the totality of his years behind the mic in 2003 and a few nitpickers somehow managed to find this insulting to Robinson.)

Syracuse University’s football team long maintained a fascinating tradition. It didn’t retire Jim Brown’s 44 because it considered the issuing of it to a deserving Orangeman an honor, a tradition to be carried on. Ernie Davis won a Heisman wearing 44 after Brown matriculated his way to the pros. Floyd Little wore 44 after Davis. Number 44 was such a big deal at Syracuse that they changed the school’s ZIP code from 13210 to 13244. The tradition ceased in 2005 when 44 was finally raised to the Carrier Dome rafters. SU athletic director Daryl Gross reasoned “if you can’t take 44 off the table, then you’re just never going to retire a jersey.”

True that. But still…

Syracuse had a nice thing going and, more germane to Jackie Robinson, what Vaughn and Huskey had done was stirring. At least once every series that Vaughn, a superstar, came to bat for Boston, the announcer for Boston’s opponent would explain why he wore 42. As Huskey became more established, word was getting out on his and his back’s behalf. These were two players right in our midst who decided to be the living, breathing embodiment of American history, who decided that the game was bigger than themselves (and in Vaughn’s and Huskey’s cases, that was extra large indeed).

That would be over with the commissioner’s decision. Now 42 would be on the wall at Shea and in some form or fashion in every ballpark. It was in danger of becoming wallpaper. Everybody would pay homage, therefore nobody would pay homage. Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday had become, in a manner of baseball speaking, Presidents Day.

Ten years later, Bud Selig has made another decision concerning 42. This April 15, a week from Sunday, the number comes out of retirement for a day. One uniform on every team can bear the 4 and the 2 (except on the Dodgers, where everybody will wear them, and the A’s, who will allow two players and one coach to share them). On the Mets it will be the skipper Willie Randolph, New York’s first African-American manager. He’s thrilled:

It’s a tremendous honor. When I heard that today, they were joking with me about who would wear it, and I said, “I’m going to fight whoever’s got it.” It’s an honor to be even mentioned with his name. It’s going to be a special day for me to be able to wear number 42.

You can’t fight the manager and you can’t argue with his logic. Ken Griffey, who switched to 42 on 4/15/97 and convinced Selig to take this step on 4/15/07, will don the number for the Reds. Jimmy Rollins will shut up long enough to take it for the Phillies. Jesse Barfield will be 42 on the Indians, as Coco Crisp will do on the Red Sox. You can’t argue with them either.

But Dave Murray raises a point of contention on Mets Guy in Michigan concerning what Willie said about 42:

I’d love the quote even more if it came from David Wright. Or Greg Maddux. Or Chipper Jones. Or Randy Johnson. Or Jim Thome. Or Pronk [Travis Hafner]. Or Curt Schilling. Or any other star who happens to be white.
All of them benefited greatly the day Jackie Robinson bravely stepped on that field, not just the black players.

Amen.

It’s hard to overlook the practicality of Jackie Robinson’s debut. Where once baseball was segregated, it was, by his hand, integrated. It was no longer Whites Only. Of course the impact was most direct on black players and, logic would follow, other non-white players. But we all benefit from knowing each other as people, not races. We all benefit from Robinson and 42, all Americans, all baseball fans.

And the Mets? As noted, Jackie was out of baseball and with Chock Full O’ Nuts as a vice president by 1962. He went into the Hall of Fame that summer. Except for Old Timers Days, when he wore a Dodgers uniform, Robinson didn’t forge any particular bond with the Mets. It was the 50th Anniversary night in his honor, taking place on Met ground — with the no-longer-Brooklyn Dodgers as visitors — that cemented his posthumous place in Mets history. Mrs. Robinson has returned regularly since April 15, 1997. The Wilpons have supported the Jackie Robinson Foundation enthusiastically. And if you’re not sure why there will be a rotunda devoted to Jackie Robinson at Citi Field in 2009, you can probably trace it back to that shivering night a dozen years earlier. Fred Wilpon may have grown up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, but it was that salute to Jackie that seemed to have sparked his determination to reinvent Ebbets Field in Flushing. If you’re still wondering why the next home of the Mets will be all Bummed out, Jackie Robinson Night is a night worth remembering.

As for who has played for the Mets these 46 seasons of their existence — specifically who was not white — you can’t help but credit Jackie Robinson for ensuring their opportunity. 1962 wasn’t all that long after 1947 and it was but three years after 1959, when Pumpsie Green (a future Met himself) became the first player on the last team, the Red Sox, to employ a black player. Ensuring integrated accommodations for the first Met Spring Training in St. Petersburg were still an issue in 1962. Ed Charles, seven years before ascending to poet laureate of the Miracle Mets, debuted as a Kansas City Athletic in 1962 at the age of 28, same age as Robinson in 1947. Pretty similar reason, too: most organizations kept a pretty strict quota on the number of black players it would promote. Ed Charles had knocked around the Brave system since 1952. It took him ten years to climb the ladder.

Did Robinson make it possible for Green and Charles to make it to the Majors? Sure. What about, as a piece in the Post put it in April 1997, Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey and Butch Huskey? That seemed a bit far-fetched to me. It was fifty years later; if not Robinson, wouldn’t have somebody else have come along eventually? Was not America moving inexorably in the direction of integrating its institutions?

Maybe. But sometimes a move needs a shove, and it was definitely Jackie Robinson’s (and Branch Rickey’s) role to administer it. In the previously recommended Best New York Sports Arguments, Peter Handrinos makes the case that there was only one Robinson, only one man who actually did what he did — and maybe nobody else could have done it as effectively if he hadn’t done it when he did it:

What would have happened if Jackie Robinson failed? Robinson would have been dismissed. He would have been labeled an outside activist and/or hothead. Undoubtedly, the editors of The Sporting News (“Baseball’s Bible”) would have concluded they were vindicated in saying blacks didn’t have the intelligence or inner fortitude to succeed on the highest level. And estimated 60% of the Major Leaguers of 1947 were white southerners who’d never known anything but racial segregation, and every one of them, including high-profile players like Enos Slaughter, Dixie Walker and Bobby Bragan, would have been treated as heroes for calling anti-Robinson boycotts. Those who had stood with Robinson, the Pee Wee Reeses of the world, would have been the marginalized ones.

Handrinos admits his worst-case scenario is speculative but the prevailing circumstances of 1947 (Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t reach the Supreme Court until 1954) back up his assertions. As he points out, even with Robinson’s successes, college coaching titans like Adolph Rupp and Bear Bryant kept integration at bay for another two decades…and that was with Jackie Robinson’s remarkable career having changed so much.

Changes couldn’t have been denied forever, but Robinson’s failure would have deferred them indefinitely.

On April 15, 1997, on a cold Queens night, those changes were instead celebrated. A number was posted on a wall. A legacy was extended. A team became one with a player who never played for them. A sellout crowd — the most racially mixed crowd I ever sat among at Shea Stadium — cheered. Cheered Jackie Robinson. Cheered Rachel Robinson. Cheered Bill Clinton and Bud Selig. And cheered Toby Borland.

One player was bigger than the game, but the game did go on. And it was a damn fine one, easy to recognize because to that point in 1997, the Mets had played virtually none like that.

We opened on the West Coast, which was unusual but was supposed to be the great new thing. Cold-weather teams would go west and come home when it got warmer. The plan didn’t work well at all. The Mets went 3-6 on The Coast, looking lost and anemic. They came home to open on a Saturday. Why a Saturday? Because the defending world champion Yankees, who also opened out west, would be raising their 23rd flag on Friday afternoon and the Mets didn’t want to compete for attention. They postponed their opening a day, but rain postponed it again to Sunday. A Home Opener doubleheader. Little pomp. Dire circumstances. Not quite 22,000 saw the Mets drop two to the Giants. Twelve-thousand more watched another loss to San Francisco Monday. We were 3-9 entering Jackie Robinson Night.

This would be our de facto opener, then. The Mets unveiled what were supposed to be their Sunday unis: snow white pants and shirts, no pinstripes and, for reasons unclear, white caps with blue bills. Armando Reynoso must have liked the look because he threw five shutout innings before Selig & Co. took over the field. Once the number was retired, it was back to baseball. Bobby Valentine wouldn’t send out a starter on such a frigid night (yeah, it really warmed up while we were in California) after such a long delay, so out to the mound went Borland. And Borland authored four scoreless frames for his first and only Met save.

Cold but worth it. Mets 5 Dodgers 0, Lance Johnson with four ribbies. Our record rose to 4-9. It marked the beginning of a brief run of .500 ball by the Mets, from whom nobody expected anything remotely that good. Two losses in Montreal sent us to 8-14 as of April 26, but there were a couple of positive developments in the interim. John Olerud, dumped on us by Toronto, was hitting .360. Rick Reed, the former replacement player (he was introduced that way every time he pitched like it was the law), had moved from the pen to the rotation out of desperation, and was posting an ERA in the low ones. Pete Harnisch had gone down to panic attacks on Opening Day, Jason Isringhausen was lost to a tuberculosis scare and a fractured right wrist and the Flammable Four relievers — Ricardo Jordan, Yorkis Perez, Barry Manuel and, despite his Robinson Night save, Toby Borland — were burning themselves out of jobs, but maybe the Mets wouldn’t be quite as bad as we thought they’d be entering the season.

Mike Francesa doubted there were really 54,047 paying fans for the Jackie Robinson celebration. The Mets had distributed blocks of tickets to school and community groups, either out of altruism or to ensure themselves a full house. After he and Christopher Russo cackled over the total attendance, Francesa magnanimously allowed the Mets their numbers. This would be, he proclaimed, all the Mets would have to hang their white hats on in 1997 anyway.

Not so fast there Mikey…

Next Friday: We could’ve been something else altogether.

13 comments to Bigger Than The Game

  • Anonymous

    This is the equivalent of a spray-painted comment after your very nice piece, but I have to say it anyway: I hate Mike Francesa.

  • Anonymous

    What's to like?

  • Anonymous

    I agree fully with Jason's take on Mike Francesa and the post in general. This was a topic in your wheelhouse, so to speak, and you didn't waste it.
    I would like to repectfully part company with you on one small point: where you refer to Selig as “a commissioner not especially noted for effective leadership.” Maybe you meant to that point in time (or, maybe you didn't), but I personally view Selig as highly competent and a hugely underrated commissioner.
    And I love your allusion to Robinson being the right man in the right place at the right time. Based on how he endured his own encounter with the ugly elements of society while he chased the Babe's record, Aaron may have acquitted himself in similar fashion had he preceded Robinson. But destiny chose Robinson and it chose beautifully.
    Well done, Greg.

  • Anonymous

    I've asked the question before and it bears repeating:
    Mike Francesa, Billy Crystal, Larry Brown, Greg Prince.
    What the hell is up with the drinking water in Long Beach?

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Albie. I was thinking Selig to 4/15/97, particularly his mishandling of the strike and the way he was hawking a league-free realignment at the time. To be honest I'd have to take a step back and assess his full tenure to give a more informed his opinion of what he's done since then. Perhaps the record of uninterrupted labor peace since 1995 is his legacy and if so, then it speaks highly for him. But I'd have to think this through before responding intelligently.
    Again, can't recommend the Handrinos book enough. It really is thought-provoking despite the so-so title that would lead you to believe it's just another “Mad Dog 100″ or whatever his piece of crap is.

  • Anonymous

    Around the time I was in high school, there were Chamber of Commerce bumperstickers everywhere that said I'VE GOT LONG BEACH SAND IN MY SHOES. Maybe some of it got in the water.
    (No, actually that sounds more like what Chris Russo swallowed.)

  • Anonymous

    I was there at Shea that night and will never ever forget it for a few reasons.
    1) My dad got tickets in the front row RIGHT behind home plate from work. For a whole week, leading up the game game, I was ecstatic. At 10 years old I was just old enough to truly appreciate how cool it was to sit in the very first row. Then of course we get there and they stuck that damn temporary section right in front us. I dont think anyone has ever been so disappointed to sit in the 6th row.
    2) Todd Hundley almost beheaded me on April 15th 1997. While sitting so close was really cool we were also just outside the protection that the net would have given us. Sitting on the first base side my father assured me not to worry about the left handed batters but be heads up for the right handed batters. Easy enough.
    And then Todd Hundley batting left handed against (and I swear this is true) Chan Ho Park. I knew I didnt have to worry about Todd hitting one completely behind himself (unless of course my dad was a liar) so I decided to dive into my Helmet Sundae (which was stupid too cause it was about 25 degrees).
    Right after a delightful spoon full of chocolate ice cream I look up just in time to see Hundley take a mighty hack and watch this ball take the weirdest spin I had seen at that point in my life and was screaming towards my head. It grazed (quite literally) my left ear, smacked off my grandfather's hand behind me and landed in the lap of the gentleman next to me.
    Most horrifying moment of my life and also the first time I called someone a jackass in public before cause the douchebag kept the ball that fell into his lap and didnt ask either one of us if we were ok.

  • Anonymous

    In all fairness, Bear did not keep the University of Alabama segregated, that was more a product of Alabama State policy and mindset of white Alabamians. In fact Bear would send black kids that he wanted (but couldn't put on his team) to northern schools who had already integrated (Michigan State in particular). Could he have stood up and integrated UA earlier than 1970, maybe…we weren't there.But he was helpful to some blacks in receiving a higher education.

  • Anonymous

    [quote]Hell, Walter O'Malley traded him to the Giants after the 1956 season for Dick Littlefield. Robinson quit the game rather than join his archrivals. He had other opportunities outside baseball and 38 was very old then. Very old for baseball, very old for someone who had lived as much of a life as Robinson had. [/quote]
    Quick historic correction, Robinson was set to retire anyway, told the Dodgers, and planned to make the announcement via a magazine article that winter. The Dodgers essentially took the oppertunity to pull the wool over someone's eyes.
    Robinson went ahead with the retirement plan because of disgust over how his telling the Dodgers he was effecitvly retired and wanted to hold the official announcement untill the article was published and then they send his contract to an another team.
    Well that was one factor in his decision, but it had nothing to do with the Dodger-Giant rivalry.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed we weren't there. I've only read about it, specifically how Sam “Bam” Cunningham ran roughshod over the Crismon Tide with USC and that opened Bear's eyes once and for all. One imagine Bryant was big enough to change policy and mindset if he so chose.

  • Anonymous

    I repeated the myth without checking further. Jackie, according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, was indeed ready to retire and tell his story to Look. One not often repeated element, however, is that Jackie did give the Giant offer some thought (Horace Stoneham did pursue him and certainly treated him with more respect than Walter O'Malley) before eventually declining.
    Though it wasn't bleeding Dodger blue that kept Robinson from reporting to the Giants, Rampersad notes that news of the trade “rocked him, even as it soon rocked his family, his teammates and legions of Dodger fans. The idea of their Jackie beig traded was bad enough; the notion of him going ot the archenemy, the Giants, was almost inconceivable. Even by baseball's chilly standards of conduct in such matter, the tade seemed arctic.”
    And, I believe, the Mets would have grabbed him had he still been playing in 1962. But that's purely speculation on my part.
    Thanks for helping to correct the record.

  • Anonymous

    and CharlieH

  • Anonymous

    I 'm not big on retiring numbers..Keep them a part of an on going traddition. Keep them alive! So that every time you see it on a guys back you are reminded of what made it famous..
    Lets see just for fun…
    7- steady eddie kranepool. Just for the folks who bleed orange and blue. If you have to explain why, your on the wrong frequency!
    8- the kid, and why not yogi, he's an icon now? Both HOF'ers..
    24- I say hey! I dont need to say more..Graced us with his presence and came back to NY for one last fling.
    45- tug was a true met. I loved his sprit and enthusiasm. He was fun and made it that way always..Ya gotta believe!!
    Thats it..But like I said, i'm not big on it! That guy we have at short has number 7. Lucky number 7.
    Pcelli60