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04/15/09 11:33 PM ET

History binds Reds to Jackie

Hairston, Baker among those with ties to legend

MILWAUKEE -- Reds outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr. knew his grandfather directly benefited from Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.

Jackie Robinson Complete Coverage

Sammy Hairston was a Negro League star and became the first African-American to play for the White Sox when he appeared in a handful of games in 1951.

Not surprisingly, Jerry was more than thrilled about wearing No. 42 on Wednesday, as Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated around the Major Leagues. It was the 62nd anniversary of when the Brooklyn Dodgers integrated baseball by playing Robinson in a game.

"It's significant for me," Hairston said. "It just shows it was that time period not too long ago where people of different skin color didn't have the opportunity to play this game. We have come a long way. I'm glad Major League Baseball is recognizing it."

At the request of Commissioner Bud Selig, all Major League players on every team wore No. 42 to pay homage to Robinson. The number was formally retired, league-wide, on April 15, 1997. The Reds played the Brewers on Wednesday night at Miller Park and both teams donned No. 42.

Two seasons ago, former Reds star Ken Griffey Jr. asked for and received permission from Selig to wear No. 42 on Jackie Robinson Day as a tribute. It started a trend that other players and teams followed. This is the first year 42 is being worn league-wide during all 15 games being played.

"It's always a pleasure, especially for a guy like me," Reds center fielder Willy Taveras said. "After Jackie played in the big leagues, that's when Dominicans started coming. I'm real happy about it."

Taveras, a native of the Dominican Republic, wore No. 42 this time last year with the Rockies during the Robinson tribute.

The Reds have a notable link to baseball's pioneering African-Americans in manager Dusty Baker, who played with Hank Aaron and is friends with many of the first and second wave of African-American players that came into the league.

Baker never met Robinson but has met his wife, Rachel, and other members of the family.

"As a kid, most African-Americans were Dodger fans because of Jackie Robinson, including my dad," Baker said. "When I transferred my junior year, there were only two blacks in the school, me and my brother. I was fighting quite a bit and my dad would always remind me and I heard these words all the time, 'What would Jackie do?' Actually, I played four sports in high school because of Bobby Bonds and Jackie Robinson. I'd go run track in what was left over after a baseball game. ... He had quite an influence in my family."

Baseball and society have made many inroads to improve race relations in the years since Robinson endured racism from fans, opponents and some teammates while with the Dodgers from 1947-56.

It doesn't mean all divisions have been erased. The Chicago Sun Times reported that as recently as 2006 while manager of the Cubs, Baker was receiving racist and threatening mail. It prompted him to stop having his wife and son attend games at Wrigley Field.

"That's behind me," Baker said on Wednesday. "I wish they'd leave it alone and not bring it up."

It's been a different situation in Cincinnati since Baker came over before the 2008 season.

"Oh yeah. Cincinnati has been great. My family loves Cincinnati," Baker said.

But there are still more improvements that are needed.

"In the world, not just baseball," Baker said. "It's better than it was, but we still have some work to do. You can tell it is better than it was just by all the people that voted for Barack [Obama]."

Baseball will get another chance to remember the struggles for racial equality this season when Cincinnati hosts the Civil Rights Game against the White Sox on June 20 at Great American Ball Park. It's the third edition of the game, but it's the first time it will be played during the regular season. It was held in Memphis the previous two times, but will be in Cincinnati for the next two years.

"Anytime you're dealing with imperfect people, there will obviously be some prejudice that lingers," Hairston said. "Having all of Major League Baseball wear No. 42 is significant, not just for black players. It's not just a black-white issue. This game has so many diverse nationalities -- black, white, Latin, Korean, Japanese -- it truly is a world game. It's good to see Major League Baseball is allowing all players to wear No. 42. It's what Jackie would have liked."

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