The Heirs of Jackie Robinson
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson's name was penciled into the Brooklyn Dodgers starting line-up for that day's game against the Boston Braves. He went 0 for 3 in his debut, but in the process, he shattered baseball's color line and changed American society forever. Robinson, of course, would go on to a Hall of Fame career, help the Dodgers win six pennants in 10 years, and establish himself as a pioneer, both on and off the field.
Sixty years after Robinson's big league debut, Major League Baseball commerated the event with Jackie Robinson Day at American and National League parks. AP sports columnist Jim Litke attended the Chicago celebration at Wrigley Field, before a game between the Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds. He observes that there were few African-Americans in attendance for the events, other than kids recruited by the Cubs public relations staff, a few fans and former players in the stands, and of course, the black players on each squad.
Mr. Litke's column highlights a trend that's been evident for more than a decade: young African-American athletes have larger abandoned The Great American Pastime for other sports, namely basketball. Litke notes that only eight percent of major league baseball players are black, roughly the same percentage of African-American adults who list it as their favorite sport. Roster positions once filled by black players are now occupied by a growing number of Hispanic and Asian athletes.
Why aren't black youngsters--the future big leaguers--playing baseball? Former Cubs slugger Billy Williams blames the game's pedestrian pace, and the mindset of "I want it now." As he told Litke:
"Kids, especially talented kids, don't want to wait. They think baseball is 'slow,' whether you're talking about the game itself or the time it takes to get the payoff. We're talking 5 or 6 years to get established, but because of the longevity, you can get those back at the end of your career."
Williams also blames baseball for its "poor" marketing efforts, and a slow realization that African-American athletes were turning away from the game:
Go to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela and you'll find baseball academies bought and paid for by teams," Williams said. "We've got one up and running in Compton, and we're renovating a few ballfields in a few other places.
"But it won't be until we get people and former players who aren't afraid to go back to the neighborhoods where they came from and do some serious scouting and selling that we're going to make a dent."
But is this a genuine crisis? It is lamentable to think that future Jackie Robinsons may opt for the NBA, rather than MLB. But, as in so many aspects of our racial debate, there seems to be a preoccupation with numbers, instead of individuals. If eight percent is unacceptable, then what is the "optimum" number of black players in major league baseball? Thirteen percent (which would match the number of African-Americans in our society)? 27% (the total when black representation in baseball peaked in the 1970s)? Or, how about 78%, the percentage of NBA players who happen to be black?
And that sort of pointless speculation begs another question: why is it a crisis when fewer African-American youngsters play baseball, but there's no corresponding concern about decreased white participation in basketball? True, the number of white players in the NBA has increased slightly in recent years, but that's only because more European-born athletes have entered the league. At the collegiate and high school level, the number of white players has declined dramatically over the past three decades. But I don't see the NBA creating programs aimed at creating white representation in the league--and quite frankly, I would be apalled if they did.
Clearly, the reason you see fewer white players in the NBA (and fewer black players in baseball) has nothing to do with race, and everything to do individual preference, preparation and performance. Inspired by superstars like Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, millions of black youngsters embraced basketball to the exclusion of other sports, hoping to be like Mike or Dr. J. Concentrating on basketball meant less time for other diversions, notably baseball. At the same time, millions of white kids gravitated towards baseball or soccer, and honed their athletic skills in those areas.
Is one choice better than the other? Hardly. At this point in the American Experiment, one would hope that we could move beyond self-imposed athletic quota systems, and concentrate on the real bottom line--the relative skills of individual players, and the collective performance of the teams they comprise. As a society, we owe those athletes the same thing we owe every one else: a chance to succeed. It's a principle that Jackie Robinson embraced, and articulated in a 1952 essay, What I Believe:
"Whatever obstacles I found made me fight all the harder. But it would have been impossible for me to fight at all, except that I was sustained by the personal and deep-rooted belief that my fight had a chance. It had a chance because it took place in a free society. Not once was I forced to face and fight an immovable object. Not once was the situation so cast-iron rigid that I had no chance at all. Free minds and human hearts were at work all around me; and so there was the probability of improvement. I look at my children now, and know that I must still prepare them to meet obstacles and prejudices.
But I can tell them, too, that they will never face some of these prejudices because other people have gone before them. And to myself I can say that, because progress is unalterable, many of today's dogmas will have vanished by the time they grow into adults. I can say to my children: There is a chance for you. No guarantee, but a chance."
Jackie Robinson also understood that there is something special about baseball, an allure that still draws great athletes to the game. If Mr. Robinson was alive today, I think the he would support baseball's efforts to reintroduce the sport to black communities, but only to provide an opportunity that might not otherwise exist--certainly not to meet some elusive "goal" for minority participation in the sport he loved.
As Jackie Robinson understood--perhaps better than anyone else--it was all about giving everyone the same chance. Nothing more. And nothing less.