This Date in Mets History: April 15 — MLB holds the first Jackie Robinson Day at Shea

Al Bello / Getty Images

Rachel Robinson, Bud Selig, and President Bill Clinton paid a visit to Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997 to help MLB and the Mets honor Jackie Robinson.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson started at first base and batted second for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In doing so, he became the first black man to play professional baseball at the game's highest level since Moses Fleetwood Walker appeared in a game for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884.

At the time of Walker's last at-bat, the President of the United States was Chester A. Arthur, a machine politician who first made a name for himself by outfitting New York State's infantry regiments with the provisions they would need to wage the Civil War. When Jackie Robinson grounded out to Boston Braves third baseman Connie Ryan in the first inning of the Dodgers' first game of 1947, President Harry Truman was more than a year away from issuing the executive order that would end segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

On April 15, 1997, exactly 50 years after Robinson's debut, Major League Baseball chose to honor the man who broke the sport's unofficial, yet rigidly enforced, color barrier with a ceremony in the city where he earned his fame. With Ebbets Field having long since been replaced by 1,300 units of Mitchell-Lama housing, Commissioner Bud Selig opted to hold the ceremony at Shea Stadium during the evening's Mets-Dodgers tilt. Joining the commissioner were Jackie's widow, Rachel Robinson, and President Bill Clinton, the first commander-in-chief since FDR to hold office without prior military experience. All three spoke during a 35-minute, fifth inning interlude, with Robinson urging everyone to recommit to the cause of equality for all Americans and Clinton noting that "Jackie Robinson scored the go-ahead run [on April 15, 1947], and we've been trying to catch up ever since."

Still, despite the stirring rhetoric from Mrs. Robinson and Mr. President, it was Bud Selig, never one known for his smooth talk, who delivered the day's most memorable speech. In a surprise announcement, the commissioner declared that MLB would retire Jackie Robinson's number league wide. Sixteen years later, Mariano Rivera remains the only active player to don a #42 jersey for every game, though Selig's desire to see the number permanently retired will come to fruition when Mo steps away from the game at the end after this season.

As for the game, the current stewards of National League baseball beat Robinson's old team 5-0 behind five shutout innings from Armando Reynoso and a four RBI day by Lance Johnson. Butch Huskey, the second to last Met to wear #42, went one-for-four.

Birthdays

  • Jeromy Burnitz turns 44. Arguably the best first round pick the Mets made in the 1990s, Burnitz was worth 19.6 bWAR over the course of his 14-year career, though most of the value he produced was for other teams. Highly regarded as a prospect, Burnitz put together a monstrous season for the Double-A Williamsport Bills in 1991. He reached double-digit totals in doubles, triples, and homers, got more free passes (104) than hits (103), and became the first 30/30 man in Eastern League history by socking a league-best 31 homers and stealing 31 bases. Called up two years later, Burnitz got the bulk of playing time from June 1993 on and slugged .475, averaging a homer every 20 at-bats. A slow start in '94 earned him a spot in Dallas Green's doghouse and the Mets chose to send him packing for pitching depth in the offseason. He returned via trade eight years later and and the opposite experience, slumping badly in 2002 before rediscovering his power stroke just in time to get shipped to the Dodgers in a 2003 deadline deal.
  • Current number five starter Aaron Laffey is 28 today. Through age 27, Laffey's closest comp according to Baseball Reference's Sim Score is Bill Bayne, a junk- balling lefty from the '20s who, according to a handwriting analyst that studied Bayne's signature for the the Atlanta Journal Constitution, was a man with "a well-rounded personality and a finely balanced brain." Who knows what alignment Laffey's mind possesses, but the Mets will likely put up with him regardless of mental state until Zack Wheeler is ready to claim a rotation spot.
  • The speedy Ricky Otero is 41. Otero got his first taste of big league life as a member of the 1995 Mets, seeing action primarily as a pinch runner and defensive replacement. According to the Spanish language publication El Nuevo Dia, Otero finished his professional career with three productive seasons for the Cancun Langosteros of the Mexican League before disappearing in 2002. Seven years later, in 2009, a fan recognized Otero, bearded and homeless, on a beach in Playa del Carmen. The El Nuevo DIa article mentions that Otero planned to seek help through BAT (Baseball Assistance Team), though there doesn't seem to be any further updates on this story.

Game of Note
The Mets played what at the time was the longest game in team history on April 15, 1968, a six-hour, 24-inning affair against Houston at the Astrodome. Tom Seaver started for New York and went the first ten, allowing no runs and just two hits. He was matched by Don Wilson of the Astros, who permitted eight Mets to reach base in his nine innings of work, though none came around to score. In fact, none of the 13 pitchers used on the day allowed an earned run. Mets reliever Les Rohr was the hard luck loser in this one. In the bottom of the 24th, he loaded the bases on a hit and two intentional walks, but induced what should have been an inning-ending double play, except the ball scooted right under the glove of shortstop Al Weis. Even though he committed the game-ending error, Weis should share the goat horns with Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda, who combined to go 0-for-20 with nine strikeouts.

Amazin'-ly Tenuous Connection
Today is Tax Day and, if you were wondering, the Mets have never had a player with the initials IRS. Or CPA for that matter. If one player had to be named the official Met of Tax Day, though, Gary Sheffield would be a good choice since he wore jersey number 10 in his age 40 season. Oddly, 1040 also happens to be the exact word count of this post. Happy Tax Day!

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