Monday, April 16, 2007

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.


Unknown said...

Might it be increased urbanization, the concentration of blacks in urban enviroments, the economics of real estate and it's impact on open spaces. Baketball requires a hoop and a few square feet. After the hoop all that is required is one ball. Have you priced a baseball glove lately? And the only way to get enough people together to play a game of baseball is to form a gang. Also baseball skills are things taught by fathers to sons- it starts with catch. I won't elaborate on that. Basketball is the sports equivalent of T.V.- the kids go off and occupy themselves without much parental or adult involvement.
Those of my generation who put our new mitts under our mattress to break them in, who got mitts, balls and bats for Christmas or birthdays and had friends similarly equipped spent our summers playing baseball as well as the other sports. Go to an urban environment and you will find teenaged boys who have never had or even put ona mitt. If you see enough grass for a diamond and field think strip mall or housing development. Jackie Robinson broke the barriers of all sports he just happenedto be wqearing a baseball uniform when he did it. The disappearance of blacks from baseball is probably not a sinister plot but just lack of exposure to the wonders and pleasures of the slow game.

Unknown said...

Irey--I agree with your observations, and if I might add another. I believe one factor in the "disappearance" of baseball from the inner city is the disintegration of the African-American family over the past 40 years. Perhaps more than any other sport, baseball is "best" learned as part of a team, in leagues that are organized and run by adults.

Unfortunately, our so-called war on poverty made men superfluous among the urban poor. We've had two generations of young men (many of them black) who have been raised in single-parent households, largely run by women. Those women have been hard-pressed to keep their families together, and (quite obviously) few of them had the time or athletic skills to organize youth baseball leagues. IMO, the lack of a male presence in many African-American families is one reason that black kids don't play baseball.

DWPittelli said...

Maybe it's really a racist plan to punish blacks by coercing them into playing and watching the most tedious of our sports. Our capitalist elites will then benefit as the witless and numbed proles will enlist en masse for hellish, tedious jobs manning assembly lines. In the final insult, our hegemonic world order will be propped up as these new zombies enlist for real in the blood-for-oil endless murder of the Bush War Machine. Indeed!