Robinson’s Legacy Dims On Diamond

By Off the BASN Wire By Jim Salisbury
Updated: November 19, 2007
Jimmy Rollins and Desi Relaford
L to R:Jimmy Rollins and Desi Relaford

Jimmy Rollins and Desi Relaford have much in common.

They are both major-league baseball players. They are both African American. They both heard the same question as they played the sport they loved during their formative years.

“What are you doing playing a white man’s game?”

“I heard it all the time,” said Rollins, the Phillies shortstop who grew up in Alameda , Calif. , near Oakland .

“Guys would ask me that in high school,” said Relaford, a Jacksonville , Fla. , native and former Phillie who is now a Kansas City Royal.

“They’d say, ‘Baseball? That’s a white man’s sport.’ It bugged me that they wouldn’t give it a chance.”

The number of black athletes who are not giving baseball a chance is now being felt profoundly in the major leagues.

On opening day this season, just 9 percent of the players in the majors were African American. The Houston Astros, the host team in tonight’s 75th All-Star Game, do not have an American-born black player on their active roster.

Jackie Robinson – the storied Hall of Famer and courageous racial pioneer who, in 1947, became the baseball’s first black player of the modern era – would probably marvel at baseball’s universal appeal today. The rosters for tonight’s All-Star Game are nothing if not diverse, featuring white and black Americans, as well as players from nations throughout the Caribbean and Latin America , Japan and Canada .

Still, Robinson would probably be troubled to know that just two of the 18 all-star starters – Barry Bonds and Derek Jeter – are African American.

(A third, Ken Griffey Jr., will miss the game because of injury.) That meek representation makes it seem long ago that perennial all-star lineups once contained black stars like Willie Mays and Henry Aaron, Joe Morgan and Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson and Billy Williams, Ozzie Smith and Kirby Puckett.

The vast array of homegrown all-stars of color from yesteryear was a natural outgrowth of the popularity of the game among black Americans.

In 1974, African American players made up 27 percent of major-league rosters. By 1995, it was down to 19 percent, on its way to 9 percent this season.

What would Jackie Robinson think of the decline?

He would be upset, Rollins, 25, said. “I think he’d say, ‘My goodness, I went through all that, and now this?’ It’s real sad.”

Baseball has always recognized the courage behind Robinson’s feat. In 1997, the majors universally retired Robinson’s No. 42 (some players of color still wear it to honor him) and made each April 15 – the anniversary of his major-league debut – Jackie Robinson Day.

All these years after Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, one has to wonder whether today he would have chosen professional football or professional basketball over baseball.

In short, young African American athletes, particularly those from inner cities, have been more readily drawn to those sports in recent years, and it shows in the professional ranks. Rosters in the National Basketball Association were made up of 78 percent black players last season. Blacks made up 65 percent of the rosters last season in the National Football League.

“Am I concerned?

Yes,” baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. “The coming of Jackie Robinson was the most powerful event in baseball history. It launched [Don] Newcombe and [Larry] Doby and Mays and Aaron and the great wave of players in the ’60s and ’70s. Then… things began to change.

“I believe it was societal as much as anything. Baseball began to fall out of the inner cities – not intentionally, but it happened.

Basketball and football became reasonable alternatives. Should we have done more? No question.”

Richard E. Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida , said baseball must take some blame.

In some cases, Lapchick said, baseball may have failed to lure black children into the game by not marketing itself in African American communities. In other cases, baseball may simply have pushed blacks away.

Lapchick pointed to the infamous interview of former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis in 1987 as an example of the latter. On national television, Campanis said some blacks may lack the “necessities” to hold front-office positions in the game.

“I think after that, educated African American parents saw baseball as a less friendly opportunity for their children,” Lapchick said. “They may have steered their children toward sports perceived as more friendly toward African Americans, both in terms of playing and post-career opportunities.”

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, an African American, concurred, saying the black community saw better opportunities.

“We’re not as dumb as we look sometimes,” Morgan said. “If we see we have a better chance in football and basketball, why are we going to choose baseball?”

Once upon a time, baseball was the sport where the big money was. Over the last couple of decades, football and basketball have offered similar financial enticements.

And, said Phillies outfielder Doug Glanville, an African American: “Baseball doesn’t really provide that instant gratification. The road [through] the minor leagues is hard.”

“I think some black kids find [basketball] more appealing because they see them on TV and they see the money,” Relaford said. “They see LeBron [James] and his Hummer, his sneaker deals and his commercials. You don’t see a whole lot of baseball players in commercials. Barry Bonds is about to break Hank Aaron’s [career home run] record, but you don’t see him doing a lot of commercials. All you hear is people saying he’s cheating. All this leads to basketball and football becoming more appealing for some guys.”

Baseball, not basketball, was once considered the city game. Youngsters in New York and Philadelphia learned the basics of the game by playing stickball and sandlot ball. Inner-city Los Angeles and Oakland , Calif. , were hotbeds of black baseball talent. Now, kids just aren’t playing as much.

“When I was growing up in Germantown , we’d play all day,” said longtime Temple University coach Skip Wilson, 74. “And I was the only white kid on my sandlot teams. Now, I drive around the city and I see a few black kids shooting basketball, but no one playing baseball.”

With fewer kids playing in the inner cities, scouts and college recruiters have little reason to visit, and the problem perpetuates itself.

According to the NCAA, during the 2002-03 school year, just 6 percent of Division I college baseball players were black, as compared to 58 percent in basketball and 45 percent in football.

Recognizing its problems in the inner city, Major League Baseball began sponsoring the RBI program – Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities – in 1991. Run in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, RBI is in 185 cities worldwide with 120,000 children; young major-league standouts Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins and Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are both graduates. But in recent years, more Hispanics and fewer African Americans are participating in RBI programs.

Baseball’s popularity in Hispanic communities is at an all-time high, and that, said Lapchick, would please someone like Robinson, as Latin stars give Latin youngsters heroes to which they can identify.

At the start of this season, 27 percent of major-leaguers were born outside the 50 United States , and the majority of those players were from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela .

Over the last decade, major-league teams have spent large sums of money opening developmental academies abroad. For instance, Major League Baseball reportedly pays the Dominican Republic $14 million a year for the rights to run 30 academies. Baseball has been criticized for not doing the same in U.S. cities.

“The lack of academies is something I’ve argued for with Bud and people in baseball for years,” Morgan said.

Last month, Major League Baseball broke ground on its first U.S.

developmental academy, in Compton , Calif. Selig said he hopes to have an academy – with quality fields, equipment and instruction – in every major U.S. city someday.

“I honestly believe we’re doing something about this,” he said. “We need to be serious and aggressive.”

The results of baseball’s efforts in the inner cities will not be seen for years.

Players like Glanville hope they work.

“To me, a baseball clubhouse has always been ahead of society in embracing multiculturalism, diversity, and working toward a common goal,” he said. “The level of interaction in a clubhouse is what the country should aspire to. It would be terrible if we lost a whole segment of people who are involved in that diversity.”