April 15 is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, and the last member of the Orioles to regularly don No. 42 couldn’t be prouder to see every player in the big leagues wearing the jersey number of the man who broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Former O’s catcher Lenny Webster is now 54 and living Orlando. He played for the Orioles from 1997 to 1999, and Baltimore was the only stop where he wore No. 42 during a 12-year major league career.
It wasn’t by accident, either. A nudge from one of the most beloved Orioles of all time was all it took to seal the deal.
“Initially, I wore several different numbers in several different places,” Webster says. “(Wearing No.) 42 came about in 1997 when we got wind during spring training that they were going to retire the number across baseball. Elrod Hendricks came to me and said, ‘You know they’re going to retire Jackie’s number.’ I knew right away what he was getting at. Elrod knew how passionate I was about my ancestry and the history of the game.”
No. 42 was officially retired in a ceremony at Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997, a half-century to the day since Robinson took the diamond at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn as a member of the Dodgers, a 28-year-old rookie first baseman. Since 2004, every major leaguer has worn that jersey number on or about April 15 on what has become revered as Jackie Robinson Day.
“Forty-two, to me, only means one thing and one man only,” Webster says. “Always has and always will. To see the number adorned in all the stadiums across baseball is incredible. To see the number worn by all the players on that one day is awesome.”
At Camden Yards, Robinson is remembered by the No. 42 disc that sits with the Orioles’ other retired uniform numbers on the left field façade, and on the plaza at the north end of Eutaw Street, where large metal numbers honor those whose jersey numbers have been retired.
Webster hit .265 with 17 homers and 86 RBIs in his three campaigns in orange and black, and his .285 average, 10 homers and 46 RBIs in 1998 were among the best numbers he put up in his career. The Orioles released him in July 1999 and he hooked up with the Red Sox. In Boston he faced another uniform dilemma.
Seems both Webster and Butch Huskey had worn No. 42, and were allowed to continue wearing the retired number because they had used it before it was permanently removed from circulation. But neither chose to wear No. 42 with the Red Sox out of respect for slugger Mo Vaughn, who had that number in Boston before departing as a free agent after the 1998 season.
Vaughn was the next-to-last major leaguer to wear No. 42 with the Mets in 2002-03. The last player to wear No. 42 full-time was Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who, like other major leaguers, was grandfathered into the number after the 1997 retirement ceremony. Rivera retired in 2013 and was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., in January. He will be inducted in July.
Webster, who was inducted into the Grambling State University Hall of Fame in 2016, keeps busy these days by assisting in several initiatives of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Many of his efforts are aimed at making sure youths - particularly those growing up in the inner cities - can eliminate the social and economic barriers that often prevent them from playing the national pastime.
He has worked with the Breakthrough Series, which helps high school juniors and seniors develop and showcase their skills before professional scouts and college recruiters. Webster also has coached at the MLB Elite Development Invitational in Vero Beach, Fla., at the former Dodgertown spring training facility, where 200 players from 12-17 receive two weeks of intensive instruction.
“In the last three or four years, it’s been heartwarming to see the kids get scouted and go to school,” Webster said. “We’re getting 10 or 15 kids each year into (college).”
Earlier this month, Webster was at Dodgertown for a ceremony to rename the complex as the Jackie Robinson Training Facility. Dodgertown opened in 1948, one year after Robinson broke the color barrier, and MLB has agreed to operate the facility for the next decade as a home for its diversity programs, including Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), which will move its championships to the complex on Florida’s East Coast.
Giving back is something that comes naturally for Webster, who vowed after winning a World Series with the Twins in 1991 to make sure he could do something for youth baseball players.
“I went home to my hometown and I got the key to the city,” Webster says. “I said a few words, and among those words was that I’d be dedicating the rest of my life to bettering things for the kids. That’s where my heart was - and still is.”