CARY, N.C. – It’s a number that carries a great sense of responsibility.
The No. 42 is not only synonymous with the name Jackie Robinson, but it represents progress and change in a world that was forced to embrace it, whether ready or not.
Making the conscious choice to wear Robinson’s number is not an opportunity offered to all baseball players. In the major leagues, the number has been retired across the board. The lone exception to the rule is Mariano Rivera, who has been wearing the same number since before it was retired and he will be the last player to do so on an everyday basis.
The number is available in other levels of baseball and across different leagues, however. In high school, no such rule exists that prevents any player from claiming the digits. But choosing to don the No. 42 in baseball is not for the faint of heart.
Justus Sheffield has opted to wear the number for his Tullahoma (Tenn.) High Wildcats, not just to represent the opportunity that he was given as a minority by Robinson’s actions, but also because of his older brother Jordan. Tullahoma’s top prospect wears No. 24 and his brother flip-flopped the digits when he joined the team.
But the number that the younger Sheffield wears across his back each time he steps on the field represents much more than simply sibling love.
“It means a lot,” the junior southpaw said during the National High School Invitational. “Just being biracial, being half-black, I wouldn’t be in this game if it wasn’t for him. So it means a whole lot. Just to wear this number is really (special). I get excited just wearing this number because I can show that I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”
Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, becoming the first black player to don a major league uniform when he took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. As it has been described many times before, his path in the game was the toughest of any to ever step on the diamond.
His role was to display his capabilities with a baseball and to take whatever came his way without fighting back. He handled that task with such grace and determination that it is hard to believe that Robinson wasn’t the perfect choice to overcome segregation within America’s favorite pastime.
Cito Gaston, a former major league player and manager and the first black manager to ever win a World Series, isn’t completely sure that a lot of young players like Sheffield really know just how much Robinson did for the game, and to open up opportunities for them.
“I don’t think so,” Gaston said. “They’re very young. I’ve heard a few that know. I’m not sure if they all know but I think that without him they would not have accomplished or be where they are today.”
Sheffield believes that he is well-versed in the legacy that Robinson left, after making his way through a detailed biography of the infielder’s life and the struggles that he overcame to play baseball.
“I actually read a story on him when I was in middle school,” Sheffield said. “It was a biography about him. It was actually crazy all the things I read, like people throwing trash at him. The things he went through, it was ridiculous.”
Sheffield has experienced racism throughout his young career, though not to the level that Robinson did. He often hears, “the ‘N word’” but opts to ignore it, citing that the people who use such language are just “ignorant”.
“Definitely,” the young player said of hearing racist remarks around the ballpark. “It’s still around. Not as much today but it’s still there. You’ve just got to shrug your shoulders, dust it off, play ball and show them what you’ve got.”
The 2014 prospect agrees that perhaps not all young players or even people in general, know enough about Robinson and the life that he led.
“I learned about him since I was younger because just growing up and being half-black, or any color really, you want to know why you’re getting to play this game,” Sheffield said. “But I think his story should be told more.”
With the days winding down before 42 hits theaters, a new Hollywood movie detailing the life of Robinson, Sheffield thinks that the story will be told more and he can’t wait for that to happen.
“I’m excited to see the movie coming out,” he said. “I think a lot of people should go see it…My whole town is already all talking about it. I’ve actually got the cover of the movie as my screen saver. So I’m real excited for it.”