In the third inning of Friday night’s walk-off victory against the Atlanta Braves, Andrew McCutchen launched a 422-foot home run over the center-field wall. It was his third of the season and second Jackie Robinson Day home run of his career.
McCutchen has celebrated 10 Jackie Robinson Days in his 12-year MLB career prior to Friday. Before No. 11, McCutchen said it’ll feel “a little different” for him and he explained why.
“We’re not only celebrating Jackie Robinson Day as the person that he was, breaking the color barrier in  and being the start of the Civil Rights Movement because that was really the first time there was some integration in this nation but the things he did outside of the game. He was very active within the Civil Rights Movement and he always stood for what he believed him. To celebrate that as well, I feel like it’s come full circle. I feel like that’s what we’re doing right now. We’re honoring him,” McCutchen said to the media prior to Friday’s game.
For many reasons, Jackie Robinson Day did feel quite different. The day is typically celebrated on April 15, when Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke MLB’s color barrier. With the pandemic delaying the start of the season, the date was moved to Aug. 28.
It’s not an arbitrary date. On Aug. 28, 1945, Robinson signed a $600 a month contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and was asked to take on the immense challenges that came with being the first Black player in MLB. Aug. 28, 1963 is also the day Robinson attended the March on Washington, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
For MLB, Jackie Robinson Day had to be more than just a performative gesture in the year 2020, since Thursday, 11 big league games were postponed to raise awareness of social justice issues in the wake of the police shooting of 29-year-old Jacob Blake. A majority of the league stood side-by-side in support of the cause.
The league taking a stance against racial inequality and police brutality and postponing games to raise awareness seemed unfathomable prior to the year 2020. For one, having fans in the stands would make pulling off the protests harder from a logistical standpoint. More importantly, however, baseball has been a largely conservative sport for most of its existence. They’ve shied away from making sweeping political statements that could upset their older, right-leaning fanbase.
The Phillies coming together with the Nationals marks significant process for an organization and fanbase that racially abused Robinson during his playing days. Ben Chapman, who managed the Phillies in 1947, yelled racial slurs at Robinson. The scene was vividly portrayed in the movie 42 that starred the late Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. The City of Philadelphia formally apologized to the Robinson family 69 years later in 2016.
73 years later, Phillies manager Joe Girardi stood with his players and supported their decision to sit out of a game in protest against racial inequality. Girardi held back tears when he spoke about what Robinson endured.
“You have all the talent in the world and you have to be interviewed to see if you can play,” Girardi said in reference to Dodgers manager Branch Rickey’s conversation with Robinson on Aug. 28, 1945. “You’re talking about a superstar and he has to be interviewed to see if he can handle it and how he handled it with grace…I just can’t imagine the difficult moments that he went through in his lifetime, but he kept moving forward.
“I think it’s important that we keep moving forward and we have these hard conversations because I want this to be the best place in the world to live in.”
Girardi concluded his pregame Jackie Robinson Day availability by reflecting on past conversations with Robinson’s wife Racheal at Yankee Stadium and wondering just how hard it was for her to sit and watch her husband taking abuse from the stands.
“I just think she handled everything so beautifully because it couldn’t have been easy for her seeing what he husband went through. I think about how protective my wife is and I imagine at times, she really wanted to lash out and lash back and protect her husband, but she handled it with grace like she always does.”
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