Jackie Robinson's number is retired at Busch Stadium, among other places. This confused me when I was a kid just going to the ballpark, and it only got more confusing when I realized the St. Louis Stars jersey that was retired was just representative—that he hadn't played there at all, that it was retired everywhere, that Mariano Rivera was somehow still wearing the number. Jackie Robinson's biography doesn't give us much specific to go on in St. Louis as baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson day on Friday, but if you need a way into Robinson's life beyond his status as the player that broke the color line and an outstanding second baseman—well, it can be managed.
1. Branch Rickey. Branch Rickey, arguably baseball's greatest executive, began his career in St. Louis, building the first farm system—which begat the Gashouse Gang, which set into motion permanently the idea of St. Louis as a baseball town.
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Rickey left the Cardinals for the Brooklyn Dodgers after the 1942 season, which left him to break the color line there. Which is why Robert Redford's new Jackie Robinson movie, in which he plays Rickey, will not feature any gratuitous Mississippi River shots.
2. He thrashed the Cardinals. Robinson's .342 average against the Cardinals was tied for his highest against any team. Here's how reverent the air around Jackie Robinson has gotten—it seems like an honor to have been thrashed by him. The Pittsburgh Pirates take high honors—he hit .342 against them with a slugging percentage of .553, 79 points higher than his career average.
3. If it's any consolation, Jackie Robinson isn't the only star the St. Louis Stars didn't have. The Stars were an outstanding Negro League squad, winning multiple pennants in their pre-Robinson incarnation, but they didn't have the player many consider the best in the history of segregated black baseball—Oscar Charleston, who had hit .426 with their predecessor St. Louis Giants in 1921.
Of course, all of this is irrelevant. The legacy of Jackie Robinson in St. Louis is an obvious one—Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, and all the black players Cardinals fans have felt free to cheer on and boo out of Busch Stadium.
If Robinson and Rickey hadn't broken the color line someone else would have done it, eventually. But the recognition of that idea doesn't belittle, or shouldn't belittle, the achievements of the individual who really did it. Because of Jackie Robinson, baseball in St. Louis is different, like baseball everywhere else.
That's why the retired number. And it was worth, in the end, all that childhood confusion.