What Would Jackie Do?

By Lyle Spencer
Updated: February 3, 2008

NEW YORK — When they band together behind closed doors to discuss their thinning Major League ranks, African-American ballplayers have a code name for these soul sessions.

“We call it a ‘blackout’ — and it is,” Torii Hunter said. “We’re decreasing every year. One year it was 11 percent, then 10, then 9. Now it’s 8.4. Ten years from now, it might be 4 percent, maybe 2 percent.

“Something’s got to be done.”

What would Jackie do?

You have to wonder. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the great American pioneer, would have been 89 on Thursday had he not succumbed to diabetes in 1972 at age 53. The game he integrated in 1947, dramatically changing his country in the process, is healthier than ever and owes him an immense debt.

But Robinson wouldn’t be all smiles today. He’d applaud the 42 percent high-water mark of non-whites in the game, but the 8.4 percent of blacks at the highest level — down from 17 percent in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of his breakthrough in Brooklyn — would provoke a pointed, impassioned response.

What would Jackie do?

“He’d be upset to the umpteenth degree, and he’d be voicing his opinion,” Don Newcombe was saying by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “He’d be disappointed. Jack would make an effort to get someone’s attention to change the whole image of the situation. But who would be listening? And what would they do about it?”

Paving the way

Newcombe reached Brooklyn in 1949 at age 22, winning 17 games and the Rookie of the Year Award that now bears Robinson’s name.

Roy Campanella, big Newk’s batterymate and buddy, had arrived a year earlier, following on Robinson’s flashing heels. The Dodgers emerged as the first true America’s Team as those walls of exclusion came tumbling down, Roberto Clemente — another original Brooklyn signee — leading a Latino explosion of talent.

By the mid-1960s, the American League finally taking advantage of the full talent pool in an effort to catch up with the runaway Nationals, the sport was rich with spectacular athletes performing amazing deeds.

For three decades, starting in 1965, the World Series would feature six to 15 black performers, peaking with 15 in 1981 when the Los Angeles Dodgers turned away the New York Yankees in six games.

With the gradual decline in African-American representation, owing to a wide range of socio-economic issues, only two of 25 players on the average Major League roster today are black.

Two African-Americans graced the 2007 World Series: Boston’s Coco Crisp and Colorado’s LaTroy Hawkins.

What would Jackie think?

Newcombe, 81, weighed the question. As the Dodgers’ community relations director since 1970, reviving inner-city interest in the game — his game — has been a mission.

“I can’t tell you what Jack or Roy or Larry Doby or any of the other pioneers would think,” Newcombe said. “They’re all gone; I’m the one who is left from that era when black people would admire us and follow us and pay attention to what we had to say.”

Long, hard road

Propelling a baseball by arm or bat is one thing. Pioneering requires a different kind of strength, of the mind, of the emotions.

“We were doing it long before Martin Luther King,” Newcombe said. “He sat at my dinner table a month before he died in Memphis and told me that Jackie and Roy and myself had made it easier for him to do what he was doing. He was being thrown in jail, beaten over the head with billy clubs, and we made it easier for him? I remember thinking how powerful that was.

“We were pioneers. We did our job. We had to bite our tongues, keep our mouths shut, sit in the back of the bus. We couldn’t stay in the same hotel as teammates. I went into the army and went to Korea when I was at the top of my career. After two years in the military, I wasn’t going to take that any more in 1954.

“When we were in St. Louis, I decided to go to the Chase Hotel, where we weren’t allowed to stay with our teammates. Jackie said, ‘Where you going, big fella?’ I said, ‘I’m going to the Chase Hotel.’ He came with me, and we changed it. It opened up hotels for people all over our country. When black fans came up to see us in St. Louis, from Memphis, Little Rock, they had to sleep in the park. Now they could get in hotels.”

Four years earlier, in 1950, Robinson had told Dodgers manager Burt Shotton that his team wouldn’t play the Cardinals if they didn’t create more space for black fans than the 3,000 or so bleacher seats set aside for them at Sportsman’s Park.

“There must have been 10,000 black people out in the street, making noise, wanting to watch us play,” Newcombe recalled. “When Jackie did that, it opened up the stands for everybody.” No more segregated seating. That was Robinson, the impact of his indomitable will.

Clearing the path for future generations was draining, demanding work. It took a toll, notably on the emancipator himself, Robinson. That is why it is so important to a man like Newcombe to keep wide open those exclusionary doors that Robinson crashed through.

“I remember something Jackie always said: ‘We’re bitter now, but if we stay the course, we’ll change the ‘i’ to ‘e’ and things will get better,” Newcombe said. “We lived to see significant change, but there is a lot of work to do.”

Channeling that old spirit

The consensus is that nothing of lasting impact will happen until youth in the inner cities make a connection to the game, something that clearly has been waning since the ’70s.

“You have to get them into it at a young age,” Angels veteran outfielder Garret Anderson said. “If you don’t, they’re playing basketball and football. You can use your athleticism to be successful in those sports, but baseball is very technical. It takes a long time to learn how to play this game right.”

How to make the game appealing to young people so drawn to the faster-paced NBA and NFL is “a tremendous challenge for everyone in baseball,” according to Davey Lopes.

“What I always hear from kids in the inner cities is that baseball is too slow, too boring,” Lopes said. “We have to show them it’s an exciting game, that speed and daring are important elements — just like the home run.”

A former manager of the Brewers now coaching with the Phillies, Lopes was thrilled by the play of shortstop Jimmy Rollins in his 2007 National League MVP season. Lopes views Rollins, 5-foot-8 and 174 pounds, as a superb role model for young athletes not blessed with exceptional size.

“That was as great a season as I’ve ever seen a player have,” Lopes said. “Jimmy did it all; he definitely deserved the MVP.

“He has everything you’re looking for — incredible talent, charisma, leadership — and he plays every day, all-out. He has an amazing blend of speed and power for a guy his size.”

Quality is not an issue with the African-American ballplayer. Rollins is a leader among a superlative new wave of talent (AL Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Grady Sizemore, Carl Crawford, Brandon Phillips, Curtis Granderson, B.J. and Justin Upton) joining established stars such as Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Frank Thomas, Hunter, Derrek Lee and Gary Sheffield in displaying the heart, soul and imagination characteristic of legends of the Negro Leagues.

“We have some great black talents in the game,” said Lopes, a college basketball player from East Providence, R.I.., who followed the flying footsteps of role models Jim Gilliam and Maury Wills with the Dodgers. “There just aren’t as many of them as there used to be. The challenge is to deepen that talent pool again, to get young people to understand the benefits of playing this game.”

Welcome to L.A.

Especially rich in African-American performers is Los Angeles. As many as nine regulars could grace the combined lineups of the Angels (Hunter, Anderson, Gary Matthews Jr., Chone Figgins and Howard Kendrick) and Dodgers (Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, James Loney and Juan Pierre).

Dave Stewart, 1989 World Series MVP, represents Kemp as a player agent and understands what the Dodgers have meant for more than 60 years to the black community.

“That’s encouraging,” Stewart said. “Those are three great young talents (Martin, Kemp and Loney) the Dodgers have. That could be big in getting the attention of young kids in the inner city.

“Exposure is a key. Tampa Bay probably had the most black players on the field last season, but that team wasn’t as visible as big-market, winning clubs. The Angels and Dodgers, no doubt they’re clubs with an opportunity to win. They could generate a lot of interest in the black community.”

Stewart broke into the Major Leagues with the Dodgers in the early ’80s. But it was with Oakland, his hometown team, that “Smoke” hit his stride, claiming 20 or more wins four seasons in a row (1987-90). Twice he was the ALCS MVP, and he was MVP of the ’89 earthquake-rattled Fall Classic for the 1989 champion A’s.

It was Stewart who came to embody the heart and resilience of the region, championing the cleanup effort after the massive earthquake struck between Games 2 and 3.

“When I was a kid — shoot, there were so many black stars to look up to, it was impossible not to notice,” Stewart said. “It was the age of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Jim Ray Hart. Reggie [Jackson] in Oakland. There was Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan … all kinds of stars from the Bay Area alone.

“All those guys were very close, very approachable. It made it easy to connect to the game, to want to be a big league ballplayer.”

Sabathia, from Vallejo, Calif., wanted to be like Stew and the Cobra, Dave Parker — not Kobe or LeBron.

“When I grew up,” Sabathia said, “I was a pitcher, and I liked the Oakland A’s. I liked Dave Stewart. I was a big left-handed hitter, so I liked Dave Parker. You had Barry Bonds playing in San Francisco, guys like that. There were a lot of guys to look up to.”

Asked if he’d be playing baseball if he was a kid today, Sabathia didn’t hesitate.

“No way,” he said. “That’s the truth.”

Born and raised in Riverside, Calif., Reds manager Dusty Baker admired Tommy Davis and took every opportunity to watch the Dodgers’ run-producing machine. Baker has worn No. 12 — Tommy D.’s number – throughout his career as All-Star outfielder, coach and three-time NL Manager of the Year.

Moving north in his teens, Baker was an all-everything high school star in Sacramento in the mid-1960s, armed with basketball scholarship offers and the talent to play college football. Drafted in the 26th round by the Atlanta Braves in the First-Year Player Draft in 1967, he chose baseball even though it was probably his least accomplished sport.

“It was different in those days,” Baker said. “There wasn’t the kind of money you have now in the NBA and NFL. If you weren’t Elgin Baylor or Wilt Chamberlain, you weren’t going to make big money in the NBA. There was more opportunity in baseball, and there were so many great players you wanted to follow.”

Baseball, Baker maintains, requires extraordinary patience, wisdom and an iron will — “like being a parent.” He calls it a “humbling game, but one with tremendous rewards if you hang with it. Hank [Aaron] taught me that. I was lucky to have Hank around when I was a young player to show me the way.

“You can play this game a long time and make a lot of money. Nobody is a bigger fan than me of basketball and football, but they don’t give you the longevity you can have in baseball.”

Opportunity knocks

Tony Reagins doubled the ranks of African-American general managers when he joined Kenny Williams of the White Sox with his October appointment by the Angels.

Reagins, a high school football star in Indio, Calif., inherited a love of baseball from his family. He followed his passion into an entry-level job with the Angels out of college, working his way up through the organizational ranks.

“There is opportunity that wasn’t always there for blacks,” Reagins said. “Baseball is a historic institution in our country and in our culture. We have to get the message out there that this is a great way to make a living.

“These are things you can address via clinics, speaking engagements, Boys Clubs, Girls Clubs, youth groups. In baseball, if you have the talent and desire, you can make it.”

Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson pointed to the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., with another academy in Philadelphia on the way, as positive signs along with other established programs such as R.B.I. (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities).

“Hopefully, we can continue to add, double that from two to four, four to eight … give kids a chance to learn from great teachers,” said Granderson, who has joined Hunter, Sabathia and other players in searching out ways to involve young African-Americans in their sport.

What would Jackie do?

He’d get to work. Mountains are there to be climbed.