Rick Weinberg
Special to ESPN.com

They came, by the tens of thousands, to honor one of history's greatest, most dignified and strong-minded individuals.

They filed in, one after another, to stage a tribute to a special, courageous man who endured a living nightmare, day in and day out, just so others like him could get a chance, an opportunity, to play the game that America so embraced.

Jackie Robinson. The name has an extraordinary sound, a special meaning to it. Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. When you hear the name, you can feel the warmth of the man, and you can hear his soft, kind voice, and you can see his eyes of honesty and sincerity, because you've seen him and heard him on video, and you just know he's just the type of person you'd be proud to emulate.

You can also feel his pain. You detest the thought of what he endured, how senseless it all was, how ignorant society was, and still is too often. But Jackie Robinson stood up to them all -- a proud, intelligent man of dignity who became a symbol for all that is right and fair.

THE MOMENT
It is April 15, 1997 -- 50 years to the day Jackie Robinson played his first major-league game at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Fifty years to the day Jackie Robinson helped change and revolutionize his sport; there was a special ceremony at Shea Stadium in New York.

They halted the game exactly halfway through the contest between the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, at 9:22 p.m., in the fifth inning before a crowd of nearly 40,000.

Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig walks to a microphone set up behind second base, where Jackie made so many of his graceful, wonderful plays. Selig is followed by Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, and their grandson, Jesse Simms, a student-athlete at UCLA, where Jackie Robinson first became known for his athletic brilliance. Closely behind is the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, as well as Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, and then Branch Rickey III, the grandson of Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers executvie who signed Robinson and guided him toward his landmark big-league debut against the Boston Braves.

Recording artist Tevin Campbell sings "The Impossible Dream" as highlights of Robinson's career flash on the stadium's video screen. Then, when the film ends, with Jackie crossing home plate after a home run, and being greeted joyously by one of his white Dodger teammates, Selig moves toward the microphone and says, "No single person is bigger than the game. No single person other than Jackie Robinson."

Then Selig holds up Jackie's Dodgers uniform jersey, with the number 42 on its back, and proclaims, "No. 42 belongs to Jackie Robinson for the ages." Then he goes on to make a surprising announcement: that baseball will do something unprecedented in sports -- bar all teams from issuing No. 42 in the future as a tribute to Robinson. "Number 42, from this day forward," he says, "will never again be issued by a major-league club."

Clinton takes the microphone next. "Today," he says, "every American should give special thanks to Jackie Robinson, to Branch Rickey and to all of Jackie's teammates with the Dodgers for what they did. This is a better, stronger and richer country when we all work together and give everybody a chance."

Clinton pauses for a moment, allowing the crowd to absorb the impact of his statement, then rekindles the memory of Robinson's major-league debut by saying, "He scored the go-ahead run that first day in the major leagues, and we've been trying to catch up with him ever since."








The ESPN Take: 91-100

Best of 1997

94: Derek and dad finish Olympic 400 together

95: Clemens flings shattered bat at Piazza

96: One strike away, Hendu saves Sox, denies Angels

97: Fridge breaks through in primetime

98: Jack Buck's tribute to America

99: Dr. J hits impossible reverse layup in '80 Finals

100: Twins win epic Game 7 duel with Braves