April 12, 2007
Over the weekend, Major League Baseball will laud Jackie Robinson for his role in integrating the game and, ultimately, the country. At the same time, it will conveniently ignore another manner in which Robinson was far ahead of his time.
Given the choice, he probably would have chosen to play another sport professionally instead of baseball.
Thousands of African-American children are making that decision today, and no matter what it has tried to stop the trend, baseball has seen the number of black players in the major leagues decline precipitously. So for MLB to plan such a blowout for this Sunday, the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, makes it seem like the sport is trying to hide the elephant in the room with Saran wrap.
As nice an idea as it was for Ken Griffey Jr. to propose that players be allowed to wear Robinson's retired No. 42 for one day, and as touching as the ceremony at Dodger Stadium with Robinson's widow, Rachel, surely will be, baseball devoting such attention to the past – no matter its place in history – is a misguided attempt to gussy up a problem with no obvious solution.
The antidote? Just keep celebrating Jackie.
"We think we're making great strides in overall diversity, but we're losing the African-American player," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president for baseball operations and the league's highest-ranking African-American. "And that's a shame. Because there was a time when baseball was at the forefront with African-American participation. We were at the forefront of the whole civil-rights movement. To let that decline to the point where we can't reverse it would be a travesty."
It is a tenuous balance, trying to honor the past without misrepresenting the present. Last season, 8.4 percent of big-league players were African-American, almost a 10 percent drop from 10 years earlier and nearly a 20 percent drop from the peak in the 1970s. The percentages taken through the years read almost like a bell curve, with the present creeping downward toward 1947.
Robinson debuted with the Dodgers that season, hand-picked by general manager Branch Rickey because of his fortitude and stubbornness. He was talented, sure, though at UCLA, Robinson made his name playing football, joining stars Kenny Washington and Woody Strode to form what would be coined the Gold Dust Trio. Washington and Strode, incidentally, were the first two African-Americans to play in the NFL, signed in 1948, after Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
The year before he signed with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, Robinson coached basketball at Sam Houston College in Austin, Texas, and, according to Jonathan Eig's brilliant new biography, "Opening Day," would insert himself into games when his team played poorly.
For Robinson, football and basketball had the allure of forbidden mistresses, and that was even prior to the NFL and NBA's maturation into baseball's legitimate competitors.
Lucky for baseball, it was willing to take the chance on Robinson and continues to ride Rickey's coattails – and Robinson's legacy – 60 years later.
"We had reduced him to this mythological figure who's the picture of cool composure and grace under pressure," said Eig, whose book chronicles Robinson's 1947 season. "He wasn't. He was a human being in lots of turmoil. We crave these myths. It's true with George Washington. It's true with Abraham Lincoln. Half these stories we learned about these legends are invented. It's because the myths help tell these stories, and we love simple stories."
Like the story of May 13, 1947, when Pee Wee Reese ambled up to Robinson at Crosley Field in Cincinnati and slung his arm around Robinson's shoulder. It's a moment cited as the turning point in baseball turning colorblind. And it's one that, according to Eig's research, never happened.
Such fables do give baseball justification for reminding younger generations of who, exactly, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was. And yet every time fans spin the turnstiles at a major-league park, they see the No. 42 alongside the rest of the team's retired numbers, a constant but subtle cue of his importance – a fair reminder, as opposed to a pound-over-the-head celebration that seems out of place on an anniversary like No. 60.
"A lot of players have lost sight of who Jackie was and what his legacy was and how important he was to our country, let alone baseball," Solomon said. "We've been pretty good over the last several years to make sure Jackie's legacy was obvious to everyone."
Whether it actually helps draw African-Americans to baseball is arguable.
Baseball, as Solomon admitted, made a decision about 20 years ago – based largely on economics – to spend money building academies in Latin American countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The players were teenagers, disposable if they didn't pan out, cheap to sign if they did. Even though the signing bonuses in Latin America have gone up exponentially, topping $2 million for the top talent, the best bargains still come from there. Nearly 30 percent of players in the major leagues last season were Latino, a number that has grown almost inversely proportionate to the number of African-Americans.
Meanwhile, in the United States, equipment prices rose and children in urban areas were priced out of the game. Baseball, slow to recognize the problem, failed to reach out. When the percentage of African-Americans dipped below 10 percent in 2004, the outcry among players began, and it continues today.
"Any publicity, anything Major League Baseball can do, is a good thing because it brings attention," said Cleveland Indians left-hander C.C. Sabathia, one of only two African-American starters in the major leagues and an outspoken voice who earlier this spring deemed the decline a "crisis." "People need to understand, this isn't going away. It won't be over after Jackie Robinson Day. I won't stop saying what I'm saying. I hope the same can be said for others."
Sabathia grew up in Oakland watching Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson and Dave Henderson, among others. He has heard all of the arguments why the trend will only get worse.
Football and basketball offer immediate riches. They have a greater appeal among the teenage girls athletes want to impress. Division I football teams offer 85 scholarships as opposed to the 11.8 of baseball, considered at most universities a non-revenue sport. Basketball hoops are omnipresent in urban areas because they take up minimal space, need little maintenance and can be used by an entire neighborhood with just one ball.
MLB tries to combat the problem with programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), which has done an excellent job of introducing kids to baseball and providing proper equipment. Keeping them is another story. Though MLB likes to point out that more than 150 RBI players have been drafted since the program's inception in 1989, only four current major-leaguers – Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, Dontrelle Willis and Coco Crisp – were graduates.
The newest attempt comes from the MLB-financed Urban Youth Academies, like the one that opened in Compton, Calif., last year and others planned for Atlanta and perhaps Houston and Washington, D.C. They have the same concept as RBI. Whether they can have greater long-term success is impossible to gauge.
"We're realistic: The numbers can drop even more," Solomon said. "We're working hard as we can to make sure they don't. It won't be for lack of effort from (MLB)."
With no obvious solutions to fixing the problem, baseball has opted for the temporary salve in hopes of buying itself some time. Baseball knows it's too big and important an institution to turn its back on what it helped foster.
"Eight percent," Sabathia said. "What would Jackie think?"
Certainly not about rejoicing. In fact, at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series, about a month before Robinson died, MLB honored him for the 25th anniversary of his debut. Robinson blanched at going. There still wasn't a black manager in baseball. Robinson extracted a promise from commissioner Bowie Kuhn that he would pressure teams to hire one.
Less than three years later, Frank Robinson was managing the Cleveland Indians.
What would Jackie Robinson ask for today? It's impossible to say.
One certainty: He wouldn't want baseball to just keep celebrating Jackie, to harp on its past while its present worsens.
It's too simple, too programmed, too easy.
Everything that Jackie Robinson – and what he still stands for – wasn't.
Jeff Passan is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Friday, Apr 13, 2007 3:13 am EDT