The day is about the man, but also the jersey. The No. 42, to be exact, which since its MLB-wide retirement in 1997 has been worn by every player each year on April 15.
Each year, that is, except this one.
There will be a Jackie Robinson Day. Just no baseball to accompany it, because the stadiums never opened this season, shut down indefinitely by the coronavirus pandemic.
So those No. 42 jerseys will remain in storage, tributes that didn’t get unpacked this year. Memories unmade.
Instead, we look to the past, and for Butch Huskey — one of only 13 players who wore the No. 42 before it was permanently turned over to Jackie — that means glancing up at a glass frame on the wall of his home in Lawton, Oklahoma.
Inside that frame is Huskey’s Mets jersey from that night at Shea Stadium, signed by Robinson’s widow, Rachel. His voice comes alive talking about it, as if the event were yesterday rather than almost a quarter-century ago. President Clinton spoke to the crowd of nearly 54,000 about Jackie’s legacy during a ceremony that halted the game in the fifth inning, a gesture of respect for the man’s extraordinary life.
Huskey first learned of Robinson in high school when a teacher suggested he do a book report on the legendary figure. It made such an impression on him that he decided to wear the No. 42 to embark on his pro career, which began as a seventh-round draft pick of the Mets.
Eight years later, he no longer was reading about history. Huskey was among those making it.
“Is that not amazing?” he said Tuesday during a phone interview. “That was an amazing night for me. When I look at that jersey and see her signature on there, that reminds me of the whole night all over again. It was an awesome feeling to be a part of it.”
That Huskey was even at Shea was a tribute to Robinson. Sure, his talent played a role in getting him there, but reflecting back on those school days, he can’t help but credit the lessons learned from Robinson’s extraordinary life.
Huskey remembers having to settle for No. 36 back then — “The numbers didn’t go high enough,” he said — but that didn’t mean he couldn’t honor Robinson in other ways.
"I think, as a young black male growing up, I faced situations — they weren't quite as harsh as the ones [Robinson] did,” Huskey said. “But to know that he made it to that level and persevered at that level after everything that he had gone through and still was going through while he was playing — that touched me.
“And if it wasn't for him, you know, I may not have went to baseball. I may have gone on some other route. But I like the perseverance that he showed. And I kind of put that in the back of my mind and used that as a driving force.”
Huskey struggled with expectations during his five years in Flushing, but it just so happened that his best season was 1997, when he batted .287 with 24 home runs in 142 games. He played for four more teams and actually switched to No. 44 with the Red Sox, only because he didn’t want to invite daily comparisons with Mo Vaughn, who along with Huskey had been one of the original 42s.
In Huskey’s mind, it all came back to Jackie’s perseverance, and the same could be said of what’s going on today.
Huskey recalled how Oklahoma City was at the eye of the COVID-19 storm in March when it was announced that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive before that night’s game against the Thunder. One of Gobert's Jazz teammates, Donovan Mitchell, had visited a local high school before also testing positive for the coronavirus.
“They closed down that school right away,” Huskey said, “and then it had a domino effect around the state. It was pretty scary.”
Now Huskey sees what’s going on in New York City, a place he considers his second home, and doesn’t even recognize it. Last year, his 15-year-old daughter Kennedy — a skilled softball player — loved her first visit, which makes the ghostly visions of empty avenues and dark buildings tougher to stomach, even from afar.
“It’s so sad,” Huskey said. “Just shocking.”
From a baseball perspective, Huskey lamented the fact that Robinson’s inspiring legacy hasn’t been able to reverse the shrinking population of African-American players, a trend with which MLB continues to struggle. But despite the distance, the Mets still are very much his team, and he watches them every chance he gets.
“They gave me a chance to fulfill my dreams,” Huskey said.
Unfortunately, on this Jackie Robinson Day, those dreams must be deferred for another year.