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Jackie Robinson Day in Birmingham remembers the legendary baseball player

Photographer Larry Gay snaps a picture of Tanjanica Crowder, left, of Calera and Juahmun Sturgeon of Fairfield. The couple wore Jackie Robinson T-shirts with his signature No. 42 on the back. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)
Michelle Clemon, daughter of attorney and former judge U.W. Clemon, proudly displays 42 on her back. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Michelle Clemon has been a baseball fan for only two or three years. But the Yale University product has long appreciated history.

That love of history is what drew her to the Negro Southern League Museum (NSLM) for a celebration of Jackie Robinson Day.

“It’s undeniable Mr. Robinson’s contribution to American history,” said Clemon, the daughter of former federal Judge U.W. Clemon. “Between my love of history and my love of sports, I’m here today to honor and recognize his contribution.”

Throughout professional baseball, April 15 is designated to acknowledge the day Robinson made his debut in Major League Baseball in 1947.

Initiated for the first time on April 15, 2004, Jackie Robinson Day celebrates him being the first black player of the modern era.

Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers – now the Los Angeles Dodgers – ended some 80 years of baseball segregation. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, remembered for his accomplishments wearing the 42 jersey.

For one day, all players, coaches, managers and umpires wear 42 on their uniforms.

The Parkside District was the central point of the celebration in Birmingham, with festivities at the museum and recognition at Regions Field as the Birmingham Barons hosted the Montgomery Biscuits.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin was on hand for a program at the NSLM.

“I think we need to remember the connection of racial barriers that Jackie Robinson broke down,” he said. “It started the movement for African-Americans across the entire nation. Not just sports but in all accommodations and walks of life to make sure there was equal opportunity.”

Ron Jackson, a Birmingham native who played in the Major Leagues, said Robinson paved the way for everybody. He added a “tip of my hat” to the late player’s wife.

“She had to be there, too, and take it in the stands and hear all the bad things they said about her husband.”

Galvin Billups of Trussville was at the museum with his sons Caleb, 7, and Micah, 4. He said Jackie Robinson Day is significant as a chance to memorialize Robinson.

“I get to teach my children his contribution and have a sense of black pride,” he said.

James Robinson, also of Trussville, was there with his sons Brandon, 9, and Jonathan, 6. He said Brandon read a book about Robinson and picked his number 42 for his youth baseball jersey.

“He loved the Jackie Robinson story and how hard he worked to get where he wanted to be,” the father said, “and how he transcended the sport.”

Former Negro Leaguer Leroy “Pirate” Miller Jr. points to his signature on a Jackie Robinson display at Negro Southern League Museum. The Leeds resident played for the Birmingham Black Barons and the Philadelphia Stars. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr./Alabama NewsCenter)

Leroy “Pirate” Miller Jr. is a former Negro Leaguer who played with the Birmingham Black Barons and the Philadelphia Stars.

“It seems like it’s more important today than it was back in the past,” the Leeds resident said. “This is a great day for all blacks to have a chance to really know something about baseball and where you’ve come from.”

But Jackie Robinson Day was not solely celebrated by blacks. Mountain Brook’s Jacob Ray was at NSLM with his 8-year-old son, Shep. It was their first time there and the father said he was blown away.

“It is absolutely amazing,” he said, adding that he grew up playing baseball and now coaches his son. “We’re right in the middle of the season, and what better way to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day than to come down here.

“The history – not just baseball but race relations in general – is a big part of educating my son,” Ray said. “His Cub Scout troop went to the civil rights museum a few months ago, so he’s already in tune to that and interested in it. This is another chapter in that. To intertwine that with baseball is important for me to pass on to him. That’s a big reason we came out.”

Jeremy Davis made the drive down from Huntsville with his family – wife, Tiffany, and sons Jackson, 11, and Jamison, 7. He would not have missed this event.

“I’m a white man and I am married to an African-American woman and we have two biracial children,” he said. “It’s important for them to grow up and know both sides of their culture and where baseball began.”

Next door at Regions Field, the Barons honored two guiding leaders for social change. One – Martin Luther King Jr. – raised his voice; the other – Robinson – raised his bat and glove.

The Barons had planned to honor the 55th anniversary of King writing his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” on Saturday by wearing commemorative jerseys with text from that letter. The game was rained out and played Sunday as the opener of a doubleheader.

The home team wore the MLK jerseys in Game 1 – a 2-1 Barons victory over the Biscuits. They changed to blue 42 jerseys for the nightcap, which the Barons lost 9-2.

As the Barons warmed up for Game 2, 14-year-old Ethan Burnett of Pelham sat along the first base line. He yelled, “Hey, 42,” appealing for a Barons player – any player – to come his way.

In the third inning of the game, an interesting exchange was heard in the media room.

“We’ve got a guy warming up in the bullpen,” Barons’ staffer Stacy McGehee said. “Any idea who that is?”

“Number 42,” fellow staffer Scott Roby replied. “He’s a right-hander.”

For the record, it was Connor Walsh. The MLK jerseys, autographed by Barons players, were available at auction.

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