Hawkins proud to wear No. 42

Hawkins proud to wear No. 42

KANSAS CITY -- History plays a large part in LaTroy Hawkins' travel plans, especially when his clubs pass through Kansas City. On every visit to the City of Fountains, the Yankees reliever makes an effort to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, paying homage to the great black athletes who preceded him.

Hawkins made his annual visit to the museum on Wednesday, taking his mother and nephew for the first time, so he was a most interested party when he learned that players will again be permitted to wear the universally retired No. 42 on Tuesday, Jackie Robinson Day.

"I was a kid and my grandfather used to tell me how Jackie was the first African-American to break into the Major Leagues," Hawkins said. "My grandfather watched him in the Negro Leagues and said he wasn't the best player on the field, but he was the best player to deal with what he had to deal with.

"The thing that impresses me the most about what Jackie did was keeping his composure. It wasn't just on the field -- it was off the field, too. He had players going after him at second base and guys yelling racial slurs. All the while, he was separated from his teammates [on the road]. That must have been the hardest thing."

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 No. 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 widow, 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 in addition to addressing critical issues of character development, such as conflict resolution and self-esteem.

The Yankees have not yet finalized their plans for which players will wear No. 42 on Tuesday, according to clubhouse manager Rob Cucuzza, who will do the honors of modifying uniforms for the club's game at Tropicana Field against the Rays.

Last April 15, the Yankees were in Oakland, where Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter and former manager Joe Torre joined Mariano Rivera, the only active player still wearing No. 42.

Rivera, grandfathered in since he was wearing No. 42 when the number was universally retired in a 1997 ceremony at New York's Shea Stadium, said he doesn't mind sharing.

"I think it's a good idea," Rivera said. "I think everyone should wear it that day to honor Jackie for what he did for all minorities. It's tremendous. I remember hearing about how he played from [former Yankees coach] Don Zimmer. Zim told me how Jackie was always one of the guys who would help out and how hard he played. It was a different time.

"It's hard to imagine what he went through. He couldn't fight back, but he would take it back on the field and play hard. The field was his territory. He played his game and fought his battles so people like me could have a job in the big leagues."

For Cano, the decision to honor Robinson is a no-brainer. Last winter, Cano switched his uniform number from No. 22 to No. 24, in part because he wanted to wear Robinson's digits in a reversed manner.

Cano's father, former big league pitcher Jose Cano, named his son after the Hall of Famer as a tribute to breaking down baseball's barriers not only for African-American players, but persons of all nationalities and creeds.

"If it wasn't for him, we couldn't be here," Cano said. "My father told me a lot about him -- he was a great player. That's something that you can't imagine, this guy playing second base and people yelling stuff when he comes up to hit -- even the players.

"You don't know what it feels to be in that situation. I don't think anybody could handle it better than him. He was a guy who did not fight and didn't pay attention to that. That's a guy we have to remember not just every year, but every day. Whoever decided to do that, that was a great idea."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.