Clayton, others wear No. 42 in tribute
Four Jays players, coaches come together to honor a legend
TORONTO -- After playing in more than 2,000 career games for 10 different organizations, Blue Jays shortshop Royce Clayton has experienced just about everything in the Major Leagues.
When Clayton arrived at Rogers Centre on Sunday, though, he got to check one more item off the list. The 17-year veteran put aside his customary No. 11 jersey and donned Jackie Robinson's No. 42 for the first time in his career -- a tribute to the late Hall of Famer on the 60th anniversary of his first game in the Majors.
Introduced in 2004, Jackie Robinson Day was created to honor the enduring impact of Robinson and his legacy as the first African-American player to break the Major League color barrier. Robinson played his first Major League game at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the Major League color barrier in 1997, Robinson's uniform number, 42, was retired throughout the Major Leagues.
Robinson's memory lives on today in initiatives such as the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which was founded by his wife Rachel Robinson in 1973 to provide education and leadership development opportunities for minority students with strong capabilities but limited financial resources, as well as Breaking Barriers, which utilizes baseball-themed activities to reinforce literacy skills, mathematics, science and social history while addressing critical issues of character development such as conflict resolution and self-esteem.
As part of Sunday's celebration, Commissioner Bud Selig allowed Robinson's jersey number to be worn for one day only, allowing players from around the league to pay their respects to the man who single-handedly changed the face of the game.
For Clayton, wearing No. 42 was a chance to honor the man he looked up to as a young boy. Clayton was born in Burbank, Calif. -- not too far from the University of California at Los Angeles' campus where Robinson once played.
"I grew up near Jackie Robinson Stadium at UCLA, and my mom educated me about the impact Jackie Robinson had," Clayton said. "I told her I wanted to play baseball, and she said, 'This is the man that will give you that opportunity.' She gave me a couple of books to read, and it went from there."
In 1999, Clayton jumped at the opportunity to become the first baseball player to endow a scholarship through the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The scholarship program was created by Jackie's wife, Rachel, who wanted to open the door for underprivileged minorities to attend college.
"I was approached by Mrs. Robinson because she heard that I had an interest in Jackie," Clayton said. "They had this endowment scholarship program going and, at the time, we were looking for organizations to get involved with. I couldn't think of a better situation or organization than the Jackie Robinson Foundation."
Participating students receive funding to help with tuition and are placed in an educational support system to help them succeed. In March of every year, they gather in New York for a five-day leadership seminar. Students in the program have a 97 percent graduation rate, which is well above the national average.
As a contributor to the scholarship endowment, Clayton has had the opportunity to follow the paths these young students are taking.
"It's awesome," Clayton said. "I get an update every year on how students are progressing, I've seen students graduate -- it's been that long. I think it's a great program that gives recipients the help they need. That's the good thing about it -- some organizations you give money and it goes here and there, but it all goes to help kids, and that's what it's all about."
It was Clayton's former teammate in Cincinnati, Ken Griffey Jr., who first asked Major League Baseball for permission to wear No. 42 on Sunday's anniversary. Selig liked the idea so much that he opened up the opportunity to everyone in baseball.
Four members of the Blue Jays organization were quick to accept. In addition to Clayton, hitting coach Mickey Brantley, designated hitter Frank Thomas, and center fielder Vernon Wells wore the number.
Brantley was nearing the end of his career in 1989 with the Mariners when Griffey broke into the Major Leagues. Brantley believes this latest gesture is a testament to how far the outfielder has come over the last 18 years.
"Back in the day, when we played, there was a lot more prejudice and things like that," Brantley explained. "For Griffey to step up, it shows his maturity and how he's thought about in the game now."
Wells is another former teammate of Griffey's, having played with him in last year's World Baseball Classic. He isn't the least bit surprised that Griffey took the lead in honoring one of baseball's greats.
"I think it was a great idea," Wells said. "It's the least we can do to say thank you as a player and pay tribute to what [Robinson] had to go through as a young African-American male trying to play a simple game of baseball."
Clayton, on the other hand, is just happy that a superstar player has jumped on board to help bring more awareness to the issue.
"Sometimes it takes a player of his magnitude to get that respect," Clayton said. "Griffey has been a key figure in this game, and for him to do that says a lot and sets the tone for everybody else."
Gregor Chisholm is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.