Jackie Robinson: The Only 42

It is hard to know exactly how to honor a hero, how to celebrate his or her accomplishments, how to remember them best.

Major League Baseball honors Jackie Robinson each season by picking an April day in which any player who so chooses can wear Robinson's No. 42, which was retired by baseball several seasons ago.

Last Sunday, hundreds of players accepted the opportunity. There were No. 42's across the country, on every team, on the backs of players of all races, nationalities and backgrounds. It is a sincere and moving gesture and an unassailable one because, even if only symbolically, it serves as a reminder that all players, not just black players, are in the debt of Robinson's contribution.

For me, however, the practice does nothing to reinforce the real greatness of Robinson's story. The essential accomplishment of Robinson's entry into the major leagues is that it was a solitary mission, against odds that were incalculable at the time. He was utterly alone, knowing that most opponents and some teammates were rooting for his failure.

The great Red Smith called Robinson "the loneliest man I have ever seen in sports."

Picture the scene if just one member of each home team on Sunday had been allowed to wear 42. Make his uniform jet black, jersey and pants, shockingly unlike that of every other player on the field. Every time he took the field, every eye would be forced to follow him because he was so different. Every person in the park would notice and he would stand out like a visitor from another place, another game, another setting.

That was Jackie Robinson's reality. Not a field of players wearing 42. He was alone, achingly different and unable to blend in with those around him.

His triumph isn't a lesson in race or society or baseball. It is a reminder that the human spirit can soar and conquer even when the numbers aligned against you seem impossibly large.

That's the visual image I would prefer on Jackie Robinson day. Not what the game became, largely because of his efforts, but what it was when the fight began.